Sunday, 31 May 2015

Bankers offered prostitution apprenticeships

The English Collective of Prostitutes is sponsoring a charitable initiative to give 35 bank executives the opportunity to retrain as prostitutes. According to a spokesperson for the Collective, many bank executives and their families suffer from social stigma as the result of a lifestyle choice which has left them trapped in a sleazy twilight zone where risky activities and casual criminality are the norm.

'Many naive young finance workers are drawn into this world by the promise of easy money' said the spokesperson, 'but all too often it's the first step on a slippery slope to a career in the notorious Square Mile district, turning tricks for a favourable Libor rate, taking clients' money for furtive assignations in seedy Swiss banks, or a life spent on benefits, supplemented by occasionally mis-selling dodgy financial products.'

She denied allegations that the Collective's latest initiative was a cynical token gesture, intended to burnish her profession's tarnished brand, insisting that retraining bank executives to rejoin the productive economy was 'the socially responsible thing to do.'

'Some people might question whether former finance workers have the right skill set to become prostitutes' she added 'but, although it may be hard at first for bankers to acquire as much dignity and compassion as the average prostitute, I'm confident that they can eventually do to their clients what they've already done to the economy.'

Friday, 22 May 2015

Grand astrological prediction for 2065

According to the Telegraph 'The Liberal Democrats will be out of office for fifty years, grandees fear, after the parliamentary party was all but wiped out in “cruel and punishing night”'. I'm sure they have been wiped out for now and for the foreseeable future, but fifty years isn't the foreseeable future, unless you're Nostradamus (and not even then, because his "predictions" are completely worthless).

Imagine a 'grandee' from 1965 trying to make a firm prediction about what the next half century would hold for any given political party, based on contemporary events. It was a different world back then:
For all I know the average UK citizen of 2065 won't have a clue what a Lib Dem was (assuming there's still a UK in 2065), but the important words here are 'For all I know.' I have no spooky knowledge of what this country - if it still exists - will look like in 50 years, or whether any existing political party will be either prospering, declining, changed beyond recognition, or consigned to the history books by then. And neither does anybody else, even people grand enough to be called 'grandees.'

But never mind the grandees - the article also makes a claim about William Hague having a crystal ball that's proved accurate over a more plausible time period:
William Hague had foreseen the rout. On completing the coalition negotiations in 2010, he is said to have told his wife, Ffion: “I think I’ve just destroyed the Liberals.”
What interests me here isn't the alleged prediction of a reasonably foreseeable outcome ('The lion will lay down with the lamb, but the lamb won't get much sleep', as someone once said), but the implication that destroying the Lib Dems was always part of a thought-out Conservative strategy, rather than just being a byproduct of the sort of power imbalances which generally stop seven-stone weaklings prevailing against 800-pound gorillas. Hague's quote sounds too apocryphal to clear that one up, though.

Tuesday, 19 May 2015

I'm Mexico's idea of paradise

Beep goes the phone. 'You're Mexico's idea of paradise' says the text. I'm temporarily lost for words - should I reply:
a. 'Oh, Mexico - I never knew you felt that way.'
b. 'I see you have an opening for a functionally literate copywriter - where do I send my CV?'
c. say nothing and decide that there's little point upgrading to a smartphone when the incoming messages are still dumber than my ten-year-old Nokia?

Monday, 18 May 2015

Answer of the day (a bus-load of nuns, redux)

Q: 'Why are more women choosing to become nuns? ... So what has been happening in Britain, and what makes women in the modern world choose to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience?'

A: 'One reason may be the concerted effort by the Catholic Church here in recent years to demystify what nuns do, and to explain what life in monastic orders actually means.' A concerted effort which has resulted in only 45 women in the whole of England and Wales taking vows last year.

In other words, probably a tiny fraction of the number of people who choose to opt out of mainstream society via women’s co-ops, craft villages, communes, communities for Buddhists, or adherents of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, or Christian pacifism, or centres devoted to sustainable living, self-sufficiency and general eco-warriordom, communities of artists, hippies, New Age-y folk and so on.

What evidence do I have for this? Well, the web site Diggers and Dreamers lists over 140 "intentional communities" across the UK. And that's just the communities listed in one directory - given the nature of these things there must be quite a few idiosyncratic experiments in communal living going on that never make it onto anything as official as a directory.

It doesn't add up to a mass movement, but I bet it adds up to more than 45 recruits a year for the whole of England and Wales.

In fact, it doesn't even add up to a movement - there's not much common ground between anarcho-syndicalists, evangelists for Krishna consciousness and people trying to set up Rudolf Steiner Schools - which is why a well-funded hierarchical organisation with centralised records and a slick public relations arm can puff a pitiful take-up figure of 45 recruits a year into looking like some sort of meaningful social trend whilst the, probably larger, number of people defecting from mainstream society into diverse sorts of intentional communities doesn't generate any such headlines.

Look out for similar "renewal of faith" hype from the Church of England, as it staunches its long-term vicar hemorrhage with massive wads of cash from its property-bubble-pumped investment portfolio:
The Church of England’s investment portfolio is to spend £100m on a huge expansion of the clergy as booming property values pushed it to over £6.7bn....

...The dramatic rebound from the lows of 2008 when the Church was forced to raise the retirement age for the clergy has facilitated the “over-distribution” to allow the church to “dig in” against decline and increase numbers by up to 50 per cent.

Property was the leading component of last year’s stellar return and investments totalled just under £2bn at the end of 2014, nearly 30 per cent of the portfolio. The average return in 2014 was 27 per cent, but only 2 per cent of that came from rental income. 
The Indy

Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Obeying the law is no defence

For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone.
David Cameron (via Chris Bertram / the Graun)

If he thinks that we can't go on like this, how would he like things to be? Something like this, I guess:
Therefore we will become an actively intolerant society, interfering in the lives of law-abiding citizens whenever we see fit.
I've never had any time for Cameron's views on political economy, but at least I gave him credit for the reasonable belief that the state shouldn't interfere in the lives of law-abiding citizens who aren't causing harm and, furthermore, that the laws themselves should be changed when they limit people's freedom for no coherent reason.

I'm sure he'd say that the people on his little list are causing harm. If that's really the case, he should do what he did with equal marriage - change the law. If he could make the case that same-sex marriage harmed nobody, so the law had no business interfering with it, he should be able to do the converse and put forward a reasoned argument that specific activity x, which is currently legal, causes harm, so it's the law's business to control it.

Others might, or might not, agree that activity x should be banned, but at least the issues could be debated openly and the rules made clear. Instead, Cameron seems to be suggesting a system where obeying the law of the land is no defence - so long as somebody in authority doesn't like the look of you, you can be spied on, detained, censored, "disrupted" or otherwise interfered with, with impunity.

Dave must be suffering from a severe attack of cognitive dissonance, trying to square the idea of Conservative respect for individual liberty and the rule of law with this kind of arbitrary, statist authoritarianism. But that's nothing to the amount of doublethink it'll take for our new justice secretary get behind the Conservative project to extend the state's coercive powers, unchecked by reference to anything as fuddy-duddy and old-fashioned as the rule of law, after his high-profile campaign, as education secretary, to instill respect for our ancient liberties in every schoolchild:
The rule of law is what Conservatives in particular were brought up to believe in, a bit of the imperial history (Magna Carta, Blackstone, Dicey; etc) that Michael Gove will soon be making all little Englanders learn by rote.
Now children, I want to hear all of you recite clause 29 of  Magna Carta: 'No Freeman* shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will We not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgment of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land. We will sell to no man, we will not deny or defer to any man either Justice or Right.'

*Yes, I know it's sexist - don't blame me, blame the 13th Century.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

You have control... they say on the flight deck. Which is where behavioural economist Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, Tod professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton identified an early iteration of behavioural economics:
During that era [World War II], the authors recount, the United States military experienced an inordinate number of “wheels-up” crashes; after planes had landed, pilots would inexplicably retract the wheels instead of the wing flaps, sending the planes crashing to the runways on their bellies. At first, the blame fell squarely on the pilots, the authors explain: why were they so careless? Were they fatigued? But when the military began to look more closely, they realized the problem was limited to two particular plane models: B-17s and B-25s. Instead of looking inside the heads of the pilots,* Mullainathan and Shafir write, the military looked inside the cockpits of those specific planes; there investigators discovered that the wheel controls and flap controls were placed right next to each other and looked nearly identical—a design specific only to the crashing planes. After identifying the problem and implementing a minor change in design (a small rubber wheel was placed on the end of the landing-gear lever), the number of wheels-up crashes declined.
It's a telling example, because it seems to me to run counter to the frequent misapplication of behavioural economics by bodies like the British Government's infamous, now semi-privatised, 'nudge unit', where Mullainathan himself ended up working.

In providing an ergonomic fix to the wheels-up landing problem, the military looked at the system, found out what was sabotaging people's attempts to do what they needed to do, then made the system better.** The military weren't trying to mess with the pilots' heads. Before and after the fix, the pilots were trying to do the same thing - land the damn thing with the wheels down - and they had autonomy in consciously using their skill and judgement to try to do exactly that (with more success, once the bug in the system had been partly rectified).

But, somehow, the current post-democratic fad for "nudging" seems to have left the idea of autonomy behind in favour of the managerialist assumption that you're not just fixing a broken system in order to help grown-ups to do what they need to do more successfully, but cleverly using subliminal nudges to reprogramme those dumb ordinary people into unconsciously doing the right thing (as defined by some unelected, unnamed technocrat, who always knows best and never makes suboptimal decisions).

And once the unaccountable technocrats start thinking of the nudgees as dehumanised experimental subjects, rather than people with agency, sure enough, they start abusing the powerless, as they did with those fake psychometric tests they were wasting jobseekers' time with a couple of years ago.

You can't fool all of the people all of the time, but in these days of PR, think tanks and nudge, it's fashionable to suppose that you can do exactly that, and claim that you're doing the people you're trying to fool a big favour.

*My emphasis.

**Within the practical constraint of not being able to stop production and redesign the cockpit from scratch so those two controls were no longer adjacent and nearly identical.

An ovation for Nigel

Like Ceres, the general election result had a few small, bright spots, chief among these being Nigel Farage going through with his promise to resign if not elected. So I was disappointed and unimpressed to see him reneging on his promise at the first possible opportunity (resigning on a Friday and coming back the next Monday may technically count as resigning, but only in the idiosyncratic sense that Bill Clinton 'did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinski').

This bright spot has shrunk but it hasn't disappeared altogether. When Farage resigned, I was in the Milton Keynes football stadium, helping with the count for the local* elections. At the stadium, they had big screens with the BBC news coverage of the breaking general election results.

Mostly, people got on with what they were doing and kept any thoughts about the results to themselves. But when the news came in that Farage had quit, most people stopped for a moment and spontaneous applause echoed round the huge room. It did my heart good to know that it wasn't just me, my friends,  the 'biased' audience in that TV debate and the other inhabitants of my personal filter bubble who were unimpressed by the Scapegoat-Finder General's 'I'm just a straight-talking bloke, not one of those two-faced politicians' sales pitch.

Now that he's  publicly blown his sales patter by squirming out of his most public promise, I'm hoping that even more people will be clapping the next time he takes a fall.

So what are you going to promise us next, Weasel Boy? Do tell.

*As I'd been poll clerking from 7am to 10pm the previous day, I was up for helping to count the locals for which started at 9.30am on Friday, but not the general election results, which were being totted up from shortly after the close of polling until what-bloody-time-do-you-call-this? in the morning.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Turkeys still anti-Christmas

Richard Seymour has a piece in Jacobin with the depressing title 'The End of Labour.' With a title like that, you wouldn't think you could make things look any bleaker, but I think Seymour actually gets a bit over-optimistic with one of his assumptions, 'If the dominant parties are forced to accept proportional representation, as seems increasingly likely'*

As likely as turkeys voting for Christmas, I'd have thought. As Channel 4's Fact Check suggests, under a typical PR system, the Conservatives might have ended up with around 30 more seats than Labour, rather than the 90-seat advantage they enjoy under the present system. I suppose they're as keen now to hang on to that advantage as they've always been. As for the rising stars of the election, it's obvious that the SNP wouldn't have done anything like as well under PR, so you've got two incumbent parties with zero incentive to change things.

On balance, I'd be reasonably happy with a move to PR. Even the fact that it would let more Ukip MPs into parliament doesn't  bother me that much. They're a mean-spirited distraction from the real issues but they're also something of a self-limiting problem, due to their well-documented head-banger problem (the latest example being the Ukip candidate who shared his fantasies about shooting his 'not British enough' Conservative rival between the eyes with an undercover reporter on the eve of the election).

With candidates of that calibre, I can see the Kippers' representation in a PR-elected chamber being quite fragile, interrupted by regular by-election-provoking resignations following the latest weird outburst (or, alternatively, with such spontaneous outbursts being effectively policed, thus making the party look as on-message and conformist as the grown-up parties).

But I reckon somebody would have to have to pry FPTP from the incumbent parties' cold, dead hands.

I just hope that the prospects for Labour aren't as dire as Seymour makes out. After all, there's a lot to play for. Having spent election day as a polling clerk, I was struck by the age profile of the voters. There wasn't quite as big a proportion of grey heads as there is in, say, our local church on a Sunday, or among the nation's card-carrying Conservatives (60-odd per cent of whom are over 60), but there are still clearly a hell of a lot of young people out there who could be voting but aren't, so that's one huge pool Labour could be fishing in. Not to mention disillusioned Lib Dem supporters, (actual liberals, as opposed to Orange Bookers), looking for a home since Cleggmania died and was buried with Seymour's damning, but fair, epitaph:
And in the last few days, we’ve had their leader, Nick Clegg, saying that a government without the Liberal Democrats involved would lack legitimacy. Even knowing that his party would be hammered into fourth place, he still saw a central role for his wheelers and dealers. In effect, the Liberal leadership chose, with the Orange Book coup, to turn their party into a mandarin, de facto apparatus of an increasingly post-democratic state.
There's still a lot to play for.

*My emphasis

Wednesday, 6 May 2015


So HSBC are still coming out with the line that effective regulation and a bank levy are such intolerable outrages* that they'll be forced to take their alleged wealth-creating alchemy elsewhere.

To paraphrase Rudyard Kipling:
It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation, To puff and look important and to say: –
"Though we know we should defeat you,
we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore bend the rules to make you stay."

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say: --

"We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!"
Thanks to a recent corporate sponsorship deal, the game has now been re-branded as The HSBC Race To The Bottom:
...if a corporation really thinks that paying taxes and following rules are too high a price to pay for staying in the UK, then the UK must not bend the rules or cut its taxes to get them to stay. That goes double for a bank that’s both too big to fail (HSBC’s assets are worth more than the UK’s annual GDP) and too troubled to carry on in its current form, having mired itself in scandal after scandal. 

*Despite the spin portraying HSBC as some kind of victim, it's important to keep in mind that most of its problems are self-inflicted. This time a paraphrase of James Moore in the Indy just about covers it - 'the misconduct overseen by HSBC managers cost its shareholders far more than any levy in fines, clean-up costs and the need to hire a small army of compliance officers to keep noses clean in future.'

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

No political party in Europe has done more

If there's a bustle in your hedge fund, don't be alarmed now - it's just the fund stream for the party machine:*
No political party in Europe has done more for hedge funds and bankers in recent years than the British Conservatives.

And the party has been well rewarded for it.

Hedge fund managers have been writing eye-popping checks to the Conservative Party before the British election on Thursday. And with no campaign finance limits for party donations, there is little to hold them back.

More than $2.3 million has come since last year from Michael Hintze, an Australian billionaire who lives in London, where he founded the hedge fund CQS. Michael Farmer, another hedge fund manager, has donated roughly $2.2 million over the same reporting period, and far more in the last decade. Stanley Fink, who once ran the Man Group and has been party treasurer, has donated $1.3 million since the 2010 election, records show.
Danny Hakim in the NYT's Dealbook column. Now it might be that the City hotshots are simply prone to spontaneous bouts of disinterested generosity but, as Danny points out, in the hands of a less public-spirited group of people, a million quid here or there could buy somebody a pretty hefty pro quo:
Britain’s Conservative-led government has been battling both at home and in Brussels on behalf of hedge funds and other financial interests.

In Britain, it scrapped a “stamp duty reserve tax” aimed at some investment funds, saving the industry more than $200 million a year. In the European Union, it waged a court battle against curbs on short-selling, resisted ceding authority to European banking regulators and fought a proposed tax on financial transactions.

It also fought, albeit unsuccessfully, a move by Brussels to cap bonuses paid to bankers. Boris Johnson, the silver-tongued Conservative mayor of London, called it “possibly the most deluded measure to come from Europe since Diocletian tried to fix the price of groceries across the Roman Empire.” 
It's old news, but there's probably no time like the present to reflect on who's funding a party that's recently seen its membership shrink by half and its reliance on handouts from the City of London double.

* Sorry about the scansion.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Brood of the lizard queen

People think that David Icke is a fool for thinking that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Knight of the Order of the Elephant, Colonel-in-Chief of the South African Railways and Harbours Brigade, monarch of all Barbados, etc, is a shape-shifting lizard-person at the nexus of a sinister cult which includes most members of the global elite as its initiates.

His theory is, of course, nonsense.

As any fule kno, the late - or maybe just undead - Ayn Rand was the actual Lizard Queen.

Think about it.

Rand's disturbingly persistent, ironically-named belief system, "objectivism", (which is basically selfishness plus an "ism" and a lot of angry, subjective moralising) makes zero sense as a survival strategy for a species of social mammal which invests years in nurturing its weak, helpless offspring and has created a civilisation featuring the sort of cooperative enterprises and support networks which allow individuals to move on from mere subsistence to experiment and specialise.

It would, however make perfect sense for a race of solitary lizards who only get together to fight or mate, then go off to bury their eggs in moist sand, leaving their self-sufficient hatchlings to fend for themselves or die.

Ergo, Ayn Rand and her followers must be our reptilian overlords. Which would explain quite a lot...

Sunday, 3 May 2015

When Benito met Nessie - an afterthought

As if the Fascist claim to have killed the Loch Ness Monster wasn't bizarre enough, there's one more level of cognitive dissonance here. The non-existence of the Scottish monster isn't the only problem with the idea of Il Duce's air force bagging history's biggest big game trophy.

As far as I know, the only Regia Aeronautica force to attack the British mainland was the Corpo Aereo Italiano (CAI), based in Melsbroek, Belgium. The CAI attacked targets in East Anglia, before being disbanded in early 1941. There's no evidence I can find that they ever ventured anywhere like as far as Scotland.*

I guess, as per Mr Goebbels, the Popolo D’Italia hacks just decided that if they were going to lie, they might as well lie big, safe in the knowledge that wartime censorship along with the temporal impossibility of checking your facts on the Internet in 1941 substantially lowered the chances of being found out.

Unlike the Murdoch's  on-message hacks whose duplicity was outed immediately.
It clearly takes more than the ready access to fact-checking to discourage outrageous propaganda.

*Corrected - I originally stated that their Fiat Br20 bombers lacked the range to fly to Loch Ness and back - re- checking the figures, I think they were theoretically capable of the unlikely trip. But there's no record of them having done so and their fighter escort certainly wouldn't have been able to follow them.