Thursday, 30 June 2011

Unintended consequences

Why didn't the Pakistani authorities notice Osama Bin Laden when he was hiding - not very effectively - right under their noses? A lot of people have suggested that the Pakistani security forces were in league with Al Qaeda. Lawrence Wright in the New Yorker has an alternative theory, based on just following the money.

The USA was giving Pakistan shedloads of money to chase after terrorists. Maybe the Pakistanis figured that actually winning the War On Terror might throttle the goose that was popping out golden eggs at a rate of knots. Best to look keen but keep Public Enemy #1 at large for as long as possible. Read the whole thing here.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Status symbol

In a consumer society, we tend to think of status symbols as being rationed entirely by how much money people have to splash around on ostentatious display. But it's not always about money - just being a member of a gang that some other folk can't join is enough for some people. If anyone could get in, the gang just wouldn't be cool anymore. This is one explanation for why some people get so hot and bothered about the idea of gay people being allowed to marry.

Of course, there are alternative explanations...

Monday, 27 June 2011

The rise and fall of the Brigate Verdi

The expression ["the green ink brigade"] is the more-or-less affectionate description given by journalists and politicians to the people who write them eccentric letters, often in block capitals and frequently underlined in multicoloured inks. For some reason I have never heard satisfactorily explained, the most obsessive of these correspondents seem to prefer green.

Ian Aitkin, writing in the Guardian, 1985

The earliest citation Michael Quinion can find suggesting a link between green ink usage and  not being quite right in the head comes from 1953, in Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, in which the eponymous hero receives a series of letters “ill-written in green ink” from a correspondent who turns out to be a wrong 'un. Quinion doesn't know whether Amis invented the green ink meme, or whether green ink was already popularly associated with eccentricity.

If the whole thing did kick off with Amis, then it's had a lifespan of a couple of generations - which probably isn't bad for a neologism. I imagine that the phrase has already lost most of its traction in the age of digital communications. These days, if somebody's going to write an impassioned screed about how 9/11 was actually planned by Ann Widdecome in her days as a sleeper agent for Mossad, or how the earth is, in reality, shaped like a massive toblerone bar, a discovery that's being suppressed by a sinister cabal of geography teachers, the warning signs have less to do with the colour of the message than with the exuberant use OF random CAPITALS along with MULTIPLE exclamation marks!!!!!

Sadly, the "Random Caps Brigade" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Greek myths

I've been doing a little more fact-checking on the Greek crisis, having wrongly conflated it with the bank-led crashes that floored so many other economies and I've at least been able to confirm that some other people's misconceptions are as wrong as mine.

It is a fact universally acknoledged that Greece has been running a massive deficit and covering it up. A lot of people seem to think that the Greeks were not just irresponsible for piling up debt like there was no tomorrow, but also irresponsible in the way they blew the money they didn't have on gold-plated public services and retiring early. When Greece first got into difficuties, the London Daily News accused the Greeks of running their country down with an 'over-bloated public sector' (as opposed, presumably, to a public sector that's just bloated enough) and letting their jammy workers retire at 38. I'd read refutations from angry leftists, angry Greeks and angry Greek leftists, but they would say that, wouldn't they, so I checked the sources behind the agitprop.

Sure enough, the OECD has figures:

Total public spending as a share of GDP      (2004-2007 average)

(Below 40%)
(50% and above)
South Korea 27.3% Luxembourg 40.0% Hungary 50.2%
Ireland 34.2% Norway 42.2% Austria 50
U.S. 36.7 Poland 42.9% Denmark 52.5
Slovak Republic 36.9% Iceland** 43.1% France 52.9
Japan 36.9% OECD Avg. 43.6% Sweden 54.4%
Spain 38.7% Greece 43.6%
New Zealand 38.9% U.K. 43.9%
Canada* 39.9% Czech Republic 44.1%

Netherlands 45.5%

Germany 45.8%

Portugal 46.5%

Italy 48.1%

Finland 49.1%

Belgium 49.6%
*Canada: 2004 **Iceland: 2004-2006 average Source: OECD
There sits Greece, virtually slap bang in the middle of the field, spending a smaller proportion of GDP on public services than relatively stable North European countries like the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Finland and Austria.

Having got this far, I came across a useful post on the Flip Chart Fairy Tales blog that has pulled together some more evidence, also showing that contrary to some stereotypes, the Greeks don't work particularly short hours, or retire excessively early.

Of course, having an average level of spending on public services doesn't make a country responsible if that country hasn't got any money to pay for even an average level of services. But these figures do narrow the problem down and suggest, as per my last post, that tax loopholes, tax evasion and general inefficiency /corruption within the tax system have played a large part in the Greeks' inability to manage their finances.

Which brings the post at Flip Chart Fairy Tales to an interesting conclusion. Being rubbish at collecting taxes helped to bring the Greek state to its knees. So the Greeks started to cut the numbers of public servants in a desperate attempt to save money - public servants including tax collectors. By this stage, the annual tax shortfall must be a drop in the ocean of debt, but skimping on tax officials still sounds like a step in precisely the wrong direction.

The world's most powerful people vs the world's most powerful biscuit

According to a list in Forbes magazine last year:

There are 6.8 billion people on the planet. Here are the 68 who matter.

Not on the list? Never mind. Now that the plutocrats' parish magazine has confirmed your status as a complete waste of DNA, you might as well relax and spend your worthless time contemplating the Oreo cookie. The Oreo is, according to Edible, 'the most powerful cookie in the world.'

I found this arresting claim in a splendidly-titled article, The Unsung Heroes of Biscuit Embossing, which cheered me up so much that I quite got over Forbes' pronouncement that every single person I know and love, almost everybody I've ever admired, everyone I've ever met, as well as almost every one of the other six-billion-odd humans on this planet, is utterly pointless. You can share the joy of  The Unsung Heroes of Biscuit Embossing here.

Going back to Forbes' list of the great and ... er ... good, I'm struck by how much nicer our planet could be if we just retired a few of the A-list global movers and shakers and replaced them with biscuits. Wouldn't the world be a cheerier place if the King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al Saud  was deposed in favour of a custard cream? Silvio Berlusconi (and family) are well past their sell-by date. What Italy needs now is a new Garibaldi.

If Jesus can be a wafer, the Vatican could retire the Pope in favour of a Tunnocks Wafer biscuit. The Church would gain the unique selling point of being the only major faith group headed by a small chocolate-coated snack built from layers of crunchy wafer biscuit and chewy caramel. They'd save a fortune on fancy hats, too.

Several things have moved on since 2010, including the careers of Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Osama bin Laden, so two tempting substitutions are denied us, but I guess that's the way the cookie crumbles.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

All PIGS are not equal

I’ve been rightly picked up for a piece of lazy generalisation in my last post, as follows:

I know "useless bankers" is general GFC shorthand, but Greece is one of the few countries where bankers don't deserve the tag.

Greek banks lent responsibly and didn't need bailouts - the Greek crisis is a sovereign debt one, where the government lied about its books in order to borrow money it couldn't pay back, so that it could keep paying out loads of money without charging any tax.

It's the opposite of Ireland, where the populace should indeed raze the banks to the ground and hang the bankers.

It’s a fair cop. Given the jaw-dropping scale of the Global Financial Crisis and the banks’ role in engineering the house of cards, it’s tempting to suggest that they’re solely responsible for every jot of economic misery in the western world. Easy, but I should be old enough to know that one-dimensional heroes and villains don’t exist outside Hollywood blockbusters and life’s never quite that simple.

Greek governments have been relying way too heavily on borrowing to finance social benefits such as pensions. Some of these benefits could have been funded out of taxation, but that would have depended on people actually paying their taxes. As it is, there seems to be a widespread attitude in Greece (as in Italy) that a tax is only payable if you’re not smart enough to avoid it, or find a loophole, or if don’t have the right contacts. This isn’t, by the way, intended as a slur on the national character – in countries where the state has been predatory, unrepresentative and corrupt within living memory, it’s scarcely surprising that there’s a tradition of dodging the taxman, especially where the taxman is still inefficient or corrupt. As an article in the Wall Street Journal explained last year:

Trying to explain the rampant tax evasion, Prof. Schneider says countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece have had continuous democracies only since the 1970s, and people aren't used to governments representing the public interest.

"In most of these countries, what matters is your family. … There is less of a sense of duty towards the state," says Alberto Alesina, a professor of political economy at Harvard. "Evading taxes is something you can freely talk about—and be proud of—at a dinner party in these countries."

The global financial crisis made Greece’s problems disastrously worse, but that doesn’t let Greek governments off the hook – if the financial crisis was the unavoidable multi-vehicle pile-up on the road ahead, the Greek government was the driver who shunted into the back of the wreck, doing twice the speed limit, without a seatbelt.

All the PIGS aren’t the same, but they all fit into a snappy journalistic acronym, so it’s easy to lump them together, as I did. They also look superficially similar. In the wake of the crisis, a lot of Ireland looks like a half-finished building site, with speculative building projects abandoned when the property bubble burst.

I seem to remember Fergal Keane on a Panorama programme dealing with the Irish crash, interviewing a guy involved in a project to build a luxury hotel on Achill Island at the height of the bubble, finance no problem. I went to Achill once, in the pre-credit crunch days. It ticks the holiday boxes for having unspoiled beaches and looking rugged and spectacular. But it’s also spectacularly bleak and windswept when a squall comes in from the Atlantic (as they regularly do), whipping the unspoiled sands into your face along with suds of sea foam and beating down on miles of rocky cliffs and treeless bog. It’s got a certain stark, unforgiving beauty, but as a holiday destination it’s pretty damn niche. The luxury hotel project, needless to say, didn’t survive the crash.

Greece, too, seems to be littered with unfinished building projects, but for a rather different reason. In Ireland, everyone who could was investing in property to take a punt on the seemingly one-way bet of rising property prices, fuelled by low interest rates, 100% loans, “liar” loans and so on. A lot of Greece has a half-built air about it, but a lot of this is has less to do with property speculation than with trying to beat the taxman. As The International Perspective blog explains:

When I last visited Greece I asked a local why all the houses had steel reinforcement wires poking out of the top. “Ah, that’s because there is a tax loophole, if your house is still under construction you don’t have to pay tax on it, so everybody builds with wires sticking up out of the top floor so they can pretend they have a never-ending development and an eternal tax exemption.”

Before Ireland’s spectacular crash, the PIGS acronym stood for Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain. Occasionally people try to shoehorn the tax-averse Italians back into the mix, giving us PIIGS. Which almost reminds me of one of my favourite childish jokes:

Q:  What do you call a pig with three eyes?

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Who are these Greek anarchists?

The Greek government has narrowly survived a confidence vote. This morning, a BBC reporter told us that the next wave of street protests will come when Greek MPs have to vote on the austerity measures needed to reduce Greece to an obedient IMF/ECB satrapy. According to the reporter, "anarchists" will be prominent in the street protests.

There's still something a bit paradoxical about the idea of anarchists taking to the street to take on those who'd like to cut the state to the bone. OK, anarchists came out in support of the Spanish Republic, but that was a marriage of necessity. Anarchists knew that their very existence wouldn't be tolerated by a ruthless junta of authoritarian, militaristic, centralist generals, so being on the side of the Republic was a bit of a no-brainer.

If there are real anarchists on the streets these days, I wonder what's going on in their heads? Maybe it's a watered-down version of being part of the Spanish Popular Front; they may be against all authority, but maybe they feel more allied a state that's supposed (however corruptly and inefficiently) to serve the Greek people, than to the authority of international institutions that protect corporations nobody voted for, rich rentiers and the get-rich(er)-quick scams of debt farmers. Or maybe, they're just young and angry and want a riot without having thought through what they're rioting for.

Or maybe it's not the rioters who are confused, but the journalists. Are anarchists really behind the riots? Are the "anarchists" really anarchists at all? Or are they just nihilists (itself just a fancy-pants shorthand for frustrated youths lashing out at The Man)? Or even apolitical thugs who see any disorder as the chance to pile in and have a good old ruck?

Or are they just relatively ordinary Greeks, driven to fury by the useless bankers and machine politicians who drove the ship onto the rocks and are now telling everybody else to swim for it, from the comfort of their gold-plated lifeboats? If so, maybe we're witnessing the rebirth of the mythical anarchist fanatic as the default scapegoat for disorder in hard times.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Another victory like that and we're done for

Foreign Policy has published its 2011 index of failed states, as defined by a number of benchmarks including human rights, number of refugees, abuses by the security apparatus, etc. Here are the top 10:

1 Somalia 113.4
2 Chad 110.3
3 Sudan 108.7
4 Dem. Rep. of Congo 108.2
5 Haiti 108.0
6 Zimbabwe 107.9
7 Afghanistan 107.5
8 Central African Republic 105.0
9 Iraq 104.8
10 Ivory Coast 102.8

Western troops have been in Iraq for eight years and the Afghan war has dragged on for a decade. The people they were sent to fight were, by any reasonable standards, bad guys.* And yet:

"And everybody praised the Duke
Who this great fight did win."
"But what good came of it at last?"
Quoth little Peterkin.
"Why, that I cannot tell," said he,
"But 'twas a famous victory."

* some of them are still around, only they're now, apparently, people we can do business with.


“Enough is enough. Keep your money.”

Money is a commodity, invented to help people by facilitating transactions. It is not wealth in itself. Wealth is natural resources, water, food, land, education, skill, spirit, ingenuity, art. In those terms, the people of Greece are no poorer than they were two years ago. Neither are the people of Spain or Ireland or the UK. And yet, we are all being put through various levels of suffering, in order for numbers (representing money which never existed) to be transferred from one column of a spreadsheet to another...

Nassim Nicholas Taleb is the Lebanese-American philosopher who formulated the theory of “Black Swan Events” – unpredictable, unforeseen events which have a huge impact and can only be explained afterwards. Last week, on Newsnight, he was asked by Jeremy Paxman whether the people taking to the streets in Athens was a Black Swan Event. He replied: “No. The real Black Swan Event is that people are not rioting against the banks in London and New York.”

From Democracy vs Mythology: The Battle in Syntagma Square (via)

How to do new politics properly

It [the Best Party] burst on to the scene before last year's municipal election, satirising politics and throwing traditional parties into disarray.

Its first pledge was to break all its promises, making the party almost impossible to attack, then it promised a polar bear to the zoo and a drug-free parliament within 10 years.

How comedian Jón Gnarr shook up Icelandic politics in the wake of the banking crisis. How different things could have been if out own dear Nick Clegg had just come out and told us that his promises were jokes before going on to break them. We might at least have had a deputy Prime Minister with a shred of  credibility. As it is, we didn't even get a bloody polar bear.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Finnish musical oddities: Part 2

In which the Porkka Playboys take Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody and add a bit of trombone and accordion backing. And perform the whole number in an old VW Polo.'Nuff said. Take it away, boys.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Taking a punt in the mothership

The Xscape building that squats beside Milton Keynes' shopping centre, like a Dalek mothership waiting to disgorge its exterminating army, currently houses the conurbation's indoor ski slope, a cinema, a rock climbing wall, along with sundry eateries, pubs and retail outlets. Exciting plans for an upgrade are afoot:

Xscape Milton Keynes has set the benchmark for quality in mixed leisure and retail development in the UK.

Building on this success, Xscape plans to take ‘The Ultimate Destination’ to the next stage, with additional development aimed at a diverse and sophisticated customer. Xscape’s plans will broaden both the leisure and retail provision, and widen the destination’s appeal, as well as complement and enhance the existing scheme to provide an improved offer to its loyal local catchment, and to attract more visitors from further afield.

Enthuses an infomercial on MKWeb. I've toyed with trying my hand at copy writing, but I'm held back by the thought that I might have to write something like that, in which case I'd obviously have to kill myself. There's something chilling about infomercials. Like zombies, they appear animated on the surface but quite dead inside. On the plus side, at least the unrestrained use of similes makes life around here seem quite exciting, what with invading Daleks* taking in a little retail therapy and the attack of the zombie advertorials. Did I mention that only this Monday, a swarm of wasps was spotted heading down Newport Pagnell High Street in the general direction of our house? Life's one long white knuckle ride around these parts, I tell you.

Anyway, the improved offer, intended to lure even more of those diverse and sophisticated customer units into the mothership, includes Milton Keynes' very own casino, a legacy of Tony Blair's cunning plan to reanimate communities up and down the land with a transfusion of Las Vegas magic.

On my personal list of enterprises likely to enhance the general happiness and well being of people in the area, a casino comes pretty close to the bottom, somewhere between a toxic waste dump and a low security facility for the criminally insane. Even if the potential increase in assaults, rapes, robberies, larceny, burglary, car theft, embezzlement, fraud, lost productivity, unemployment, bankruptcy, anxiety, depression, heart attacks, wife beating, child neglect, child abuse and suicide isn't as great as the gambling industry's critics suggest, a marginal increase in any of the above doesn't sound like a win to me. But maybe that's just me being an old killjoy. After all, the upside is that people enjoy having a little flutter, letting their hair down and, for the majority, the odd spot of gambling is just a bit of fun, isn't it?

Well maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But after reading Michael Greenwell's first-hand account of a night in a casino (a link well worth clicking), I have to say it doesn't sound like my idea of fun.

*I notice that the headline in today's Daily Express is screaming "DUSTBIN CHAOS ON THE WAY", clearly an omen of the coming Dalek apocalypse.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Why are you carrying a weasel?

Police say a man was carrying a dead weasel when he burst into a Hoquiam apartment and assaulted a man.

The victim asked, "Why are you carrying a weasel?" Police said the attacker said, "It's not a weasel, it's a martin," then punched him in the nose and fled.

The attacker was apparently looking for his girlfriend and had gone to her former boyfriend's apartment Monday night where the victim was a guest.

KXRO reports he left carcass behind.

Police later found the suspect arguing with his girlfriend at another location and arrested the 33-year-old Hoquiam man after a fight.

He said he had found the martin dead near Hoquiam, but police don't know why he carried it with him.

A martin is a member of the weasel family.

From The Seattle Times. via

Monday, 13 June 2011

What if they gave a tea party and nobody came?

Here’s another indication that the shouty Libertarian minority aren’t going to be liberating us from the tyrant state any time soon, at least in the UK.

When the coalition came to power, the noise from the herds of angry blogatarians sweeping majestically across the Internet subsided from a deafening cacophony of outraged bellowing to a low chuntering background drone. Without the stimulus of “ZaNu Labour” to maintain their permanent state of tumescent rage, many signed off from blogging with a triumphant cry of ‘my work here is done’ and, one by one, crept silently to rest.

Fast forward to 2011 and there's little sign of a burgeoning Tea Party-style movement taking to the street and holding politicians to account. May’s Taxpayer’s Alliance-inspired “Rally Against Debt” failed to get anybody other a minuscule clique of True Believers on to the streets.

Of course, a movement's success isn't necessarily limited to the number of followers it can accumulate. If an idea influences those in power, if it nudges government policy in a particular direction, then it's making a difference, even if it doesn't spawn a mass following. The coalition's agenda of cutting fast and getting rid of jobs in the public sector is an example of coalition policy travelling in the same general direction as the Libertarians, although neither as far, nor as fast, as the Libertarians want. However, this isn't a unique idea the Libertarians are bringing to the party; for many Conservatives, the Tory-led coalition is merely fulfilling aspirations that have been in the mainstream of their party since Thatcher. It might be convenient for the Tories to have a few Tea Party wannabes urging them on in the press and blogosphere, but they don't need them any more than Baroness Thatcher needed Sarah Palin.

The coalition do, however, have a few more specifically libertarian-flavoured initiatives. Let's see how one of the most "radical" ones is going. The “free schools” project in England was intended to inspire parents dissatisfied with their local school to set up their own new school from scratch. 

Most parents don’t have vast reservoirs of unused spare time, educational qualifications and educational experience just lying about waiting to be used, not to mention many already being knackered by the existing, competing, demands of work, parenting, making ends meet and running a household, so it’s a reasonable assumption that this an authentically ideological Libertarian idea about what the world should be like, as opposed to a pragmatic assessment of how to allocate limited resources.

The first problem is that “free schools” aren’t a proper Libertarian idea. They’re still funded by taxpayer's money and will be chasing precisely the same pot of money as the despised "bog-standard comprehensives.' But Free Schools still appeal to the libertarian tendency because they’re not controlled by Local Authorities which are, according to angry Libertarians, staffed entirely by parasitic numpties unfit for life in the glorious world of the unfettered free market.

Anyway, how’s it all panning out? To provide a bit of context here, there are in the order of 17,000 primary schools in England forjust over four million children and around 3,000 maintained secondary schoolsserving just over three million pupils, according to figures culled from the Department for Education.

Channel 4’s FactCheck blog found that a grand total of eight Free Schools will definitely be opening their doors to pupils this September and there are further sixteen that might open in the autumn term, subject to their funding being signed off. OK, this is only Year Zero for the Educational Revolution but, even so, it’s only about 3% of the 700 “expressions of interest” Michael Gove was boasting about.

This isn’t just a numerical embarrassment for the proponents of the Free School movement, but an ideological one. As Shadow Education Secretary Andy Burnham cheekily pointed out, with 100 civil servants tasked with launching the Free Schools initiative and no more than 3,000 children set to attend in the first year, we’re talking one civil servant for every 30 kids. If that’s freeing education from the dead hand of bureaucracy, then my name’s Ayn Rand.

One of the stated aims of the Free Schools policy is to tackle educational exclusion by allowing parents in deprived areas with failing schools to create a better alternative. In fact, out of the 24 Free Schools either definitely or positively opening this autumn, nine are in the top 50 per cent better-off areas in England and four of these are existing independent schools seeking Free School status in order to qualify for state funding. That still leaves the majority in the poorer than average parts of the country, but the numbers involved are a drop in the ocean.

The tiny numbers involved aren't that surprising. In the real world, busy parents really don't have time to drop everything and just build a brand new school as if they were throwing together a piece of flat-pack furniture. Free School pioneer Toby Young let that particular cat out of the bag when he realised that he couldn't attend the Rally Against Debt (which he thought was hugely important) as well as taking his kids to see a pirate exhibition, as promised. I don't blame him for wanting to give the kids a treat, but if it's that hard for a busy parent to commit to a one-off event, how many are realistically going to make the huge, rolling, week-in, week-out sacrifice of time necessary to start a half-way decent school?

The FactCheck blog highlights another interesting fact. Although the launch of Free Schools has been a flop, Academy Schools, free from Local Authority control, have been on a roll. Academy Schools are, of course, a legacy of Tony Blair’s New Labour although the Conservatives have always supported the idea. There were 203 Academy Schools up and running at the last election. That figure had increased, when FactCheck recently checked its facts, to 704, with schools converting to academy status at a rate of two every school day.

Unlike Free Schools, a fringe fad that looks doomed to fail, Academy Schools are growing at a worrying rate. Worrying because money funnelled into this fad has been money held back from the majority of schools still in local authority control. Worrying because Academies can be set up by any crank with enough money to cough up 10% of an academy’s capital costs, famously including that God-bothering car salesmen who wanted to introduce creationism in the classroom. Worrying because they’re creating a two-tier education system, with academies creaming off the most successful schools, leaving the local authorities to manage whatever’s left. Worrying because, at a level when children need a good general education at a local school, academies specialise, which is no use at all to parents if their local school’s specialism doesn’t happen to coincide with their child’s aptitudes and abilities.

Although there are a few libertarian dog-whistle words like “competition” and “choice” in the academy project, it’s not radical, but disturbingly close to the mainstream post-Thatcherite orthodoxy embraced by Conservative and New Labour alike. In some ways, academies combine the worst of both worlds, being largely funded by taxpayers, yet not being accountable to the public, or subject to Freedom of Information legislation, offering choices based on what the provider chooses to provide rather than what the user needs and introducing the relentless attrition and distraction of competition, without the advantage of being self-funded.

So I’m not worried about unworkable libertarian pipe dreams actually being enacted. What does concern me is how mainstream it's become for politicians to introduce inane and wasteful initiatives in the name of "doing something." For all the faux competition, faux "choice" and boasts about being radical and innovative, all the New Labour and Coalition flagship educational reforms have really done is to slice up the same cake of taxpayer’s money into slightly different slices, whilst wasting resources and demoralising teachers with endless change. All of which is more relevant to children's education than the wishful idea that millions of hard-pressed parents are going to magically discover they've got the time, energy and expertise to set up and run their own schools.

Miliband aims low and misses

What is Ed Miliband playing at? We've got a Coalition of out-of-touch millionaires laughably pretending to share our pain as they pile on the misery month by month, Nick Clegg attempting to prove that he's totally not sold out by flicking a wet towel at the PM, or whatever other gesture passes for Muscular Liberalism this month, Andrew Lansley and Michael Gove blundering about like hyperactive toddlers in a glassware shop and Ken Clarke incapable of remaining conscious for either the budget or the President of the USA.

Surely it can't be that difficult for Ed to sound as if he's offering something a bit different, a bit more positive, ever so slightly more inspirational? But, no, he still seems to be playing follow-my-leader with the Tories and the right-wing press. First, he decided that a bit of immigrant-bashing worked for the Tories, so he thought he'd tag along, too. Now he's noticed that it's fashionable to kick the unemployed and smear them with the 'benefit cheats' tag (it's a good job the unemployed aren't as tireless as our parliamentarians and bankers when it comes to helping themselves to taxpayer's money, or we really would have a problem on our hands).

I really can't understand it. Can Ed not understand that being David Cameron's Mini-Me is never going to  make him look like a statesmanlike Prime Minister-in-waiting, or even like somebody with something slightly different or original to bring to the debate? Besides, the role of Cameron's Mini-Me is already being adequately filled by NickClegg, who'd probably flick any usurper across the buttocks with a wet towel.

Friday, 10 June 2011

What could possibly go wrong?

Here's an amusing piece of made-up news from those cheeky rascals at the Daily Mash:
Facebook and other social networks could be used by British citizens to sign into public services online...

A Cabinet Office spokeswoman confirmed to us this morning that the department was speaking to "a range of industry" about its ID assurance scheme, a prototype for which is expected in October this year.

Correction - it's actually a real news story  ... oh ... *facepalm*.

Thursday, 9 June 2011


After criticising the coalition government for implementing policies that no-one voted for, the Archbishop of Canterbury has been reminded that he’s spent his life advocating policies from a leader no-one can see, let alone vote for ...

... 35 year-old shop-keeper Mike Williams told us, “As a confirmed atheist I’m not sure you understand just how uncomfortable it makes me to agree with him.”

“My default position is that anything that man says should be immediately dismissed, because it’s probably based on magic and fairy tales – but criticising the coalition just feels so right. You know?”

“That said, if he doesn’t want elected officials doing things people didn’t vote for, can we assume he’ll be giving up his seat in the House of Lords?”

From my regular dose of NewsThump

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Multistable perceptual illusion of the day

If you're the kind of person who goes in for tattoos of logos,* the striking snake head image that adorns the front of the Dodge Viper sports car might look like a cool piece of body art. Personally I'd advise against it. Not because tattoos are painful (although I believe they are). Not because I happen to think tattoos look a bit rubbish (I've never seen a person who looked better with a tat than without one, but it's your body, not mine, so what you do to it as a consenting adult is none of my business). Not because tattoos are a bugger to have removed if you have second thoughts (although they surely are). Not because the Dodge Viper is a terrible car (I'm not enough of a petrolhead to have any opinion about the Dodge Viper versus any other car in its class, so if you want to pick a fight over that issue, do it with somebody who watches Top Gear). Not even because you are a human being and reducing yourself to an advert for a brand is, in my opinion, self-debasement of the highest order.

It's just that if you turn the Dodge Viper snake head upside down, you get ... Daffy Duck.

That's all folks!

*that's logos as in commercial emblems - tattoos representing the philosophical / theological concept of λόγος are, I imagine, available only in a very niche subset of tattoo parlours

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Liberty ship of fools

Maybe I've been politically naive. Recently, I'd assumed there was an alignment between vocal libertarians, and influential right-wingers (both politicians and members of the banking and business establishment). After all, the UK coalition government's slash and burn approach to public services is the sort of thing you'd expect to delight people who think that the state and all its works are intrinsically evil and should be shrunk as fast as possible. On the other side of the Atlantic, the influence of the Republican Party's teapot tendency would seem to indicate the same direction of travel. Adam Curtis's outing of Alan Greenspan as a former disciple of Ayn Rand seemed only to confirm the traction that libertarian ideas had already gained at the highest levels of the establishment (OK it probably wasn't news to a lot of other people, but it was an eye-opener to me).

Left-wing fantasy novelist China Mieville begs to differ. He's written an essay picking apart a bizarre libertarian project to build a colossal floating city of a ship that would be part trading estate, part luxury gated apartment block, part exclusive leisure complex, part duty-free shopping mall and part (so the blurb seems to imply) offshore tax haven. This Randian fantasy of a cruise liner on steroids was scheduled to have set sail in 2003, but realising the dream has been a bit harder than the project's backers anticipated and, to date, completion of the Freedom Ship, as it's called, remains a dream. Mieville's thesis is that the libertairans behind this project aren't really a powerful elite, or even truly aligned with the really rich and powerful, but deluded idealistic second-raters chasing rainbows whilst the truly pragmatic, ruthless elite get on with helping themselves to the wealth of nations, unhindered by any romantic libertarian notions of being too pure and self-reliant to suck the state's teats dry when they can get away with it:

Libertarianism is not a ruling-class theory. It may be indulged, certainly, for the useful ideas it can throw up, and its prophets have at times influenced dominant ideologies—witness the cack-handed depredations of the “Chicago Boys” in Chile after Allende’s bloody overthrow. But untempered by the realpolitik of Reaganism and Thatcherism, the anti-statism of “pure” libertarianism is worse than useless to the ruling class.

Big capital will support tax-lowering measures, of course, but it does not need to piss and moan about taxes with the tedious relentlessness of the libertarian. Big capital, with its ranks of accountant-Houdinis, just gets on with not paying it. And why hate a state that pays so well? Big capital is big, after all, not only because of the generous contracts its state obligingly hands it, but because of the gun-ships with which its state opens up markets for it.

Read the whole article here. In the libertarian fantasy, Atlas Shrugged, Randian übermensch John Galt shrugs off the stifling bonds of the state to construct a paradise fit for entrepreneurial heroes. Building a real, floating  libertarian paradise has, so far, proved beyond the resources or abilities of the John Galt wannabes. Maybe, as Mieville suggests, this is because the real-life libertarians aren't as potent and superior as the fictional libertarians they're trying to emulate. Maybe, they're just big capital's useful idiots. Given that some of the highest profile cheerleaders for libertarianism include Sarah Palin, hardly the sharpest hunting knife in the pickup truck, and James Delingpole, once memorably described as 'the stupid man's Niall Ferguson', I don't think we can dimiss this notion out of hand.

The heads up on the China Mieville piece and spot-on characterisation of James Delingpole came from Blood and Treasure.

For ye have the poor always with you

When the IMF arrives in a country, they are interested in only one thing. How do we make sure the banks and financial institutions are paid?... It is the IMF that keeps the [financial] speculators in business. They’re not interested in development, or what helps a country to get out of poverty. 

Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize-winning economist and former IMF employee, turned whistleblower, quoted in Johann Hari's disturbing piece on what the IMF does to the countries it's supposed to be helping. He's not the first to point out that it's perilously close to what Dominique Strauss-Kahn's been accused of doing to a hotel maid.

It makes grim reading, but there are a couple of good news stories wrapped up in there too. Malawi, by rebelling against the IMF's disasterous policies, moved from being a famine-racked basket case to an exporter of food aid within two years. The Hungarian people kicked out an IMF-friendly government bent on slashing public services to pay off the defecit and elcted one that promised to make the banks, not the people, pay for the banker's crisis. The IMF squealed like a pig, but, guess what, the sky did't fall.

As this is IMF behaving badly, rather Fleet Street's preferred scapegoat, the European Union, I'm expecting the Scum, The Daily Fail, the Torygraph and the other usual suspects in the right-wing press to just ignore the whole issue.


Thursday, 2 June 2011

The world didn't end on May 21st...

... but there's still this, more plausible, apocalyptic scenario to worry about:

$8.1 trillion

$8.5 trillion

$8.1 trillion is the total cost of everything the USA has ever spent on every major war and government project in the entire history of the nation, going right back to the American Revolution (adjusted for inflation).

$8.5 trillion is how much the US taxpayer spent on bailing out the banks after the 2008 crisis (according to Casey Research)

The figures are taken from a post at Naked Capitalism, cheerily entitled We Are on the Verge of a Great, Great Depression. Sweet dreams, everybody.

Telly to get your teeth into

I’ve really enjoyed the first two episodes of Adam Curtis’s documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Whether Curtis’ conclusions are correct or not, there’s so much interesting stuff to chew over that you actually have to start thinking. That's a novelty in itself; the level of most political debate on TV is so anodyne and simplistic that engaging with it is a consciousness-lowering experience.

On balance, I agree with one of Curtis’s main arguments; that we live in an age of ideology and hierarchical power, but the dominant ideology has borrowed ideas from science and technology to give subjective political choices and the self-interested exercise of power the spurious legitimacy of objective necessity.

In episode one, Curtis fingered Ayn Rand as a one of the first proponents of this intellectual sleight-of-hand. Up to a point, you know where you are with Rand’s philosophy that individuals should act exclusively in their own self-interest, be self-reliant and never act collectively or for the common good. Her stroke of genius was to label her political programme “Objectivism.” The implication was that Rand’s philosophy, was objective and rational (of course it’s objective – it’s called “Objectivism”, dummy!), unlike rival philosophies, which were weak, muddle-headed and subjective, (as defined by Rand).

Having made it an article of faith that her own preferences were driven by pure rational objectivity, Rand and her followers were on their way to creating what Michael Shermer called ‘the unlikeliest cult in history.’ By pronouncing itself objective and rational, the Randian cult attracted a lot of bright people who should have known better (such as Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs) as well as, more recently, a bunch of simple-minded, selfish Tea Party chimps. That much I knew. What I didn't realise, until watching the documentary, was that long-time US Federal Reserve chief, Alan Greenspan, was a major acolyte.

In episode two, we were shown another historical precedent - General Smuts's quaint idea of "Holism" an "objective" philosophy based on the perceived ecological balance of nature (an idea which, conveniently for Smuts, supported the status quo of the white-run British Empire):

It had very much in common with his philosophy of life as subsequently developed and embodied in his Holism and Evolution. Small units must needs develop into bigger wholes, and they in their turn again must grow into larger and ever-larger structures without cessation. Advancement lay along that path. Thus the unification of the four provinces in the Union of South Africa, the idea of the British Commonwealth of Nations, and, finally, the great whole resulting from the combination of the peoples of the earth in a great league of nations were but a logical progression consistent with his philosophical tenets.

It's a new variation on an old theme. It's presumably more or less how organised religions started. One chief is a mere human being whose orders can be questioned (at the risk of a beating), so priesthoods emerged to tell the plebs that power isn't being exercised in the interests of the guy who'd have you killed if you didn't do what he wanted, but is ordained by a higher power. Challenging unfairness and rocking the boat wasn't just risky, it was evil. And, by the way, if you trespass against the norms of the tribe and go upsetting the priests and the strong man who looks after them on earth, you'll burn for all eternity, peasant.

In a  scientific, (largely) post-religious age, hellfire is an insufficient threat. Now we're kept in line with the lie that the existing order is the natural order, the only possible order, objective, rational and beyond criticism. In the past, the self-interest of the tribal elite was dressed up as God's will. In a managerialist age, it's dressed up as the inescapable conclusion of objective, rational thought, sanctified by spreadsheet. Dissent is routinely dismissed as 'politically motivated' (what the hell else would it be?), or 'inappropriate' (another weasel word intended to convey faux objectivity by people who don't take responsibility for their own beliefs). There is, they say, no alternative. Life is unfair - now just grow up and used to it. Which is a great message for those interested in comforting the comfortable and making sure the afflicted don't bother them with their problems. It's also a lie - ecosystems change and evolve, the political certainties of one generation are consigned to the dustbin of history by the next. People have changed the political facts of life, challenged the divine right of kings, slavery, apartheid and shoving little kids up chimneys and they can do it again.

This is only one strand in the web of ideas in Curtis's documentary. Some of them may be proved duds - on computers, networks and market instability, for example, this guy, coming from a libertarian viewpoint, thinks that Curtis got it wrong. From an opposing camp, there are mutterings that he focused too much on the role of computer networks in market instability, ignoring more obvious triggers such as the repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act. I've heard rumours that, presumably in episode three, Curtis will have a go at Dawkins and the idea of the selfish gene, citing these as ideas that encourage a mechanistic views of humans as mindless component parts of a system (if so he's obviously not read Dawkins carefully enough, because Dawkins has been explicitly saying for well over thirty years that the selfish gene is a metaphor which illuminates the mechanism of evolution and doesn't dictate the principles of morality or how society should be organised).

But, right or wrong, there's plenty to get your teeth into and I'd urge everybody to listen up – it’s a great antidote to the torpor and hopelessness induced by the endlessly repeated mantra that ‘there is no alternative.’ There's an interesting article about the documentaries on The Register here, a link to the programme website and BBC iPlayer here, and I'm guessing if you miss it on iPlayer (or don't get the content in your region), somebody will be posting these somewhere on the Internet sometime soon.

As a bonus, the programme's title referenced a wonderfully mad poem by Richard Brautigan about mammals and computers living together in mutually programming harmony. Did anybody else notice the (presumably coincidental) echo in George W Bush's alleged statement that 'I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully'? Wonderful stuff.