Thursday, 2 July 2015

Full spectrum response

[The prime minister] said IS posed "an existential threat" to the West, and its members in Iraq and Syria were plotting "terrible attacks" on British soil.

Mr Cameron - who chaired another meeting of the Cobra emergency committee on Monday morning - said the UK must have a "full-spectrum response" to the IS threat - including continuing with air strikes.

Two things:
  1.  The threat is not existential. The Tunisia attack was horrible - horrible in the same way as another recent attack by a frustrated, gun-wielding young man against the designated scapegoats of his peculiar ideology - but, contrary to what you might read in the Daily Mail, the armies of the Caliph aren't currently massed at Calais, poised to hit our beaches, roll over our armed forces and impose hand-chopping Sharia on everyone in these islands, from the Scilly Isles to Stromness.
  2. A 'full spectrum response' might imply a well thought out, methodical, rational, attempt to quantify every aspect of the threat and calmly implement an evidence-based, proportionate reaction to every element of the problem. Experience suggests that 'full spectrum response' will probably translate as 'throwing any random shit we can think of at the problem in the hope that some of it will stick', a view reinforced by the desperate attempt to imply that the case for ever-more intrusive mass surveillance of the British public has somehow been made by the indoctrination of a Tunisian citizen in Libya.
If you want to know what the 'random shit' version of a full spectrum response looks like in more detail, consider the reaction of the American religious right to the recent US Supreme Court ruling on equal marriage:
Conservative Christianity promises full spectrum response to gay spectrum threat
  1. Again there's hype about an alleged existential threat, this time to religious freedom. This time, not only is the physical threat exaggerated, but it's actually non-existent (unless I missed some news bulletins about equal marriage fanatics mowing conservative Christians down with automatic weapons). Extending the rights of one group to marry doesn't threaten the rights of people with different beliefs to marry, believe or worship as they've always done in any way at all.*
  2. The stuff being thrown at the not-really-existential threat is jaw-droppingly random (I'm using the modern, colloquial sense of 'random' as in 'totally off the wall and uncoordinated'). Two ... er ... random examples:
First, there's the guy who insists that a few unconnected Bible passages quoted out of context constitute a clear and specific prophecy that the USA will shortly be punished for its tolerance of same-sex marriage by being destroyed by Vladimir Putin's irreproachably homophobic Russia.

Second, there's our old friend Steve Kellmeyer at The Fifth Column, with his own unique variation on the slippery slope argument. I've already seen plenty of equal marriage opponents asserting that permitting gay marriage is just the same as allowing people to marry their parents, siblings, multiple partners, or pet animals, but this is the first time I've actually seen anybody come up with the idea that if, as a society, we tolerate gay marriage, we might just as well tolerate rape.

Yep, same-sex marriage, rape, morally equivalent, apparently. Interestingly, somebody in the comments raises the obvious point that, these days, all marriage is (or should be) consensual, whereas rape, by definition, is not. Kellmeyer's response is also interesting:
Monkeys tear each other apart and eat each other, but that doesn't make cannibalism acceptable. Just because we consent to something, that doesn't make it acceptable, or good, or something that thereby becomes impossible to question. 
And there was me thinking that one of the moral problems with cannibalism, or eating another sentient being, might involve lack of consent on the part of the party being torn apart and eaten.

In short, the religious right seem to be throwing every sort of bizarre argument, from every place on the spectrum, at the enemy in the hope that something will hit home and ending up with something like a textbook example of Poe's Law ('without a clear indicator of the author's intent, parodies of extremism are indistinguishable from sincere expressions of extremism').

Of course, for somebody of my generation, a proper full Spectrum response would involve an indestructible puppet man with a campy red hat and and the voice of Cary Grant:

Off the wall, I know, but it makes at least as much sense as any of the other full spectrum responses I've been seeing lately.

*Self-inflicted threats, like the hilarious Australian couple who vowed they'd divorce out of sheer spite, if their country ever allowed people of the same gender to marry one another, don't count.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Worst. Election. Ever.

According to this widely-shared video by CGP Grey, the recent UK Election results were the worst in (modern) history and, after watching it, I'm inclined to agree (I've re-posted this video in spite of the intrusive advertising because I think the content's worth sitting through a few seconds of ad break for):
When you put it like that, the present system looks pretty broken. Not that I can see much chance of it being fixed any time soon. Having got where they are courtesy of First Past The Post, you wouldn't expect the Conservatives and the SNP to saw off the branch they're sitting on. And the public don't seem exactly worked up about the issue, as Alan Renwick wrote on the eve of the last election:
And, as we saw in the AV referendum in 2011, voters have a strong status quo bias on issues such as this: few voters understand the ins and outs of electoral systems; and voters who don’t quite understand the reform that is on offer tend to opt for the existing rules.

So what might happen?

What, then, might happen after the election? Some of the minor parties – though not, of course, the SNP – might push for electoral reform. They won’t make this a strong red line, as they will know that the public are on the whole much more interested in things like immigration, economic recovery, taxes, and the quality of public services.
Mind you, I still hope that things will change one day. After all, defenders of rotten boroughs once argued just as forcefully for the 'stability' of the staus quo as today's supporters of FPP, and where are all those indispensable rotten boroughs now?
Rotten boroughs were defended by the successive Tory governments of 1807-1830 – a substantial number of Tory constituencies lay in rotten and pocket boroughs. During this period they came under criticism from prominent figures such as Tom Paine and William Cobbett.

It was argued during the time period that rotten boroughs provided stability and were a means for promising young politicians to enter parliament, with William Pitt the Elder being cited as a key example. Members of Parliament (MPs), who were generally in favour of the boroughs, claimed they should be kept as Britain had undergone periods of prosperity under the system.

Because British colonists in the West Indies and on the Indian subcontinent were not represented at Westminster officially, these groups often claimed that rotten boroughs provided opportunities for virtual representation in parliament for colonial interest groups.

Politicians such as Spencer Perceval asked the nation to look at the system as a whole, saying that if rotten boroughs were discarded, the whole system was liable to collapse. 

Unfortunately, I've no idea what it will take to change the present system - I just hope it doesn't take hugely painful events on the watch of a government with a small share of the popular vote to destroy the 'stability' argument for FPP.

Monday, 29 June 2015

I blow my nose at you

"I wish the BBC would stop calling it 'Islamic State' because it is not an Islamic state,” David Cameron complained to on the BBC's Today programme. "'So-called' or Isil is better,” he added.

I don't know much about counter-terrorism strategy, but I'd hazard a guess that members of the self-appointed Caliphate and its potential recruits aren't going to be discouraged by BBC newsreaders taunting them with the phrase "so-called."

But I may be wrong - after all, it worked for those French knights:
Go and boil your bottoms, you sons of a silly person. I blow my nose at you, so-called "Arthur King," you and all your silly English K-nig-hts.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

The neckpiece of conservative Washington

Don't ask me how I stumbled across The Leadership Institute's shop, but it's worth a look. The merchandise for this conservative pressure group has an oddly compelling blend of tackiness and exclusivity that makes me think of a Betterware catalogue for the One Per Cent:

Sport the club wear of the conservative movement

Dubbed by Time as "the neckpiece of conservative Washington," the Adam Smith tie has quite the distinguished history.

The Adam Smith tie was first introduced in 1968 for members of the Political Economy Club at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. The ties were given as gifts to club speakers. One visiting speaker, Ralph Harris, now Lord Harris of High Cross, liked the tie and encouraged the Institute of Economic Affairs in London to market it.

In the mid-1970s, Commodore Don Lipsett of the Philadelphia Society popularized the Adam Smith tie in the United States. Both the Institute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith Institute in Britain, as well as the Fraser Institute in Canada and a free-market book store in Australia, produce their own versions of this tie.

By the early 1980s, Commodore Lipsett's ties were regularly worn in the Reagan White House and by Reagan loyalists throughout the federal government.

Prominent and reliable wearers, like then-Federal Trade Commission Chairman James C. Miller III, made news when caught wearing their Adam Smith ties.

"The proverbial old-school tie is being put to ideological use in Washington these days," said a July 6, 1981 article in Time. "The most popular neckpiece around the Reagan White House is one bearing tiny cameo profiles of Adam Smith, the 18th century Scot whose An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations lined the classic argument for getting government off the back of business."

The Adam Smith tie is now the club tie of the conservative movement.

Wearers of Adam Smith ties were described in 1987 by National Journal as "a community of activists who have one thing in common: A zest for a good intellectual fight and unbounded faith in economic growth."

Today, young conservatives across America join leaders such as House Majority Leader Dick Armey, former U.S. Attorney General Edwin Meese III and Nobel Laureate Dr. Milton Friedman, who regularly wear Adam Smith ties. "It's an important symbol to a lot of people who are of like mind," says Norma Lipsett, widow of the recently deceased Don Lipsett.

By arrangement with Mrs. Lipsett, the Leadership Institute has taken up the torch to continue the Adam Smith tie tradition.

"Our object," says Leadership Institute President Morton Blackwell, "is to keep alive and to spread this honorable sign of the conservative movement, which identified the faithful in the Reagan White House."
Informercial by somebody called Amy Green. Personally, I'm all for these people identifying themselves as clearly as possible, rather than lurking in the shadows and influencing the political agenda by wealth and stealth, but I think that these ties are intended to be subtle signals by which insiders identify one another, rather than helpful warning signals for the rest of us.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Questions worth not asking

We already know that you should 'never send to know for whom the bells tolls' (it tolls for thee, stupid) and we remember Kennedy's more questionable exhortation to 'ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country' (it all sounds very good and altruistic, but you'd kind of hope that in any well-run society these two options wouldn't simply exist as binary alternatives with a zero-sum outcome).

I just came across a more relevant question to not ask:

'ask not simply ‘Is it more efficient?’ or ‘How much does it cost?’'

The right question to ask is:

‘Is it good or bad? For whom? According to which standard?’

The quote was mined from Ian Beacock's interesting piece on the historian Arnold Toynbee. I'm not fully on board with Beacock's idea that 'technology cries out for robust criticism.' In my view it isn't the technology itself that needs a good talking to, but the way problems get framed, along with the sort of unexamined assumptions that narrow the range of possible solutions down to fit a particular group's unspoken, partisan agenda. But his article's well worth a read, anyway.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Bailouts, beams and motes

Hours after Germany’s Angela Merkel gave a cautious welcome to Greece’s latest reform proposal, she received a sharp reminder of the depth of frustration back home when one of her own backbenchers poured scorn on the bailout talks.

Wolfgang Bosbach, a legislator from the chancellor’s CDU party — who voted against previous Greek bailouts — dismissed the eurozone’s policy towards Greece as a “financial carousel . . . which I personally don’t believe will ever come to a stop”.

Mr Bosbach told the state broadcaster Deutschlandfunk: “Anyone who now believes that this is the last chapter of the endless story of Greece, will soon be disabused.”

For an appropriate response, see Matthew 7:5 and Albrecht Ritschl, professor of economic history at the London School of Economics:
Michael Nevradakis (Interviewer): At the present time, we hear a lot in the press and the media about the German economic success story, about German fiscal responsibility, as compared to the supposed irresponsibility of the Southern European countries, such as Greece. But you have argued that Germany was the biggest debt transgressor of the 20th century. Why do you believe this is the case?

Albrecht Ritschl: Well, we can just do the numbers, and I already talked about these war debts being almost equal to Germany's economic output in the last pre-war year, when the German economy was running at full employment. So this was essentially never paid back. Plus we have Germany's internal public debt, which was all but wiped out in a currency reform undertaken by the Americans in the Western zones of occupied Germany and by the Soviets in the Eastern zones of occupied Germany in 1948. The Soviets wiped out Germany's public debt entirely; the Americans wiped it out by 85 percent. Now, if we add everything up and try to come up with a super grand total, both internal and external, wiped out in the currency reform and in the London agreement, we arrive at a figure which is roughly - this is very rough, but just to have some sort of an idea - four times Germany's national product. So to provide this in values of today, if we accept that Germany's national product is somewhere to the tune of over 2 trillion euros, which is beyond 2.5 trillion US dollars, we would be talking about a default and debt forgiveness of somewhere in the range of 10 trillion dollars. I would tend to think that this is probably unrivaled in 20th century history.
Oh, and about forgiveness for those other debts to the human race (six million Jewish lives, upwards of twenty five million Soviet ones, five million or so Poles, a million Yugoslavs, half a million or so each from France, Britain and and Greece, not to mention the six or seven million German people who died in the war started by Germany), don't mention it. No, honestly, you're welcome. All forgiven and forgotten now. I'm sure you'd do the same.

Not that Merkel and Bosbach and most of the rest of the German population, who weren't even born then bear any kind of collective responsibility for Germany's past crimes (any more than 'the Greeks' are collectively responsible for every past bit of political and economic mismanagement and misfortune that has contributed to their present troubles).

What current German politicians do share are the benefits of living in a country that owes its current prosperity to being forgiven, bailed out and allowed to rebuild itself after a hideous, colossal, self-inflicted, catastrophe.

Guys, when your nation owes that big a debt of gratitude to the rest of the world, maybe you shouldn't be quite so quick to lecture other nations, complain that you're 'losing patience' with their debt repayment proposals, or stubbornly insist that they stick to an austerity plan that collectively punishes an entire nation by systematically destroying its economy almost beyond hope of recovery.

History aside, neither the Lutheran Angela Merkel or the Catholic Wolfgang Bosbach (Protestant work ethic, my arse) seem to have been paying much attention in Bible class, either. Never mind me quoting that famous line in Matthew's gospel about hypocrisy, these self-described Christian Democrats don't show much sign of having read or understood Matthew 6:12, either..

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Prostitution - the smart way to graduate debt-free

We will shortly be arriving at Late Capitalist Dystopia Central, where this train terminates - please ensure you have all of your belongings with you before leaving the train:
Wanted: Rich man to give poor student better life. Must provide cash allowance, luxury holidays and designer goods in return for.....?

Emma Jane Kirby meets the young British women funding themselves through university by dating rich older men via websites. And asks - who is exploiting who?

She meets those who sees sugar dating as the perfect transactional relationship in which both parties get exactly what they want including those at some of England's top Russell Group Universities. People like the student who had two sugar daddies at University so that she could fully concentrate on her studies and achieve a First Class degree. Her Mum didn't just know about it, she approved, calling it a " great, great solution" to the family's financial problems.

And we meet Sugar Daddies, to get their point of view:

" I pay my current sugar baby £2,000 a month plus £1,000 shopping allowance. Do I want sex as part of my arrangement? Yes, of course.....Expectations go both ways." 
Massive inequality + a breathtaking transfer of debt onto the shoulders of people who haven't even started earning properly = yet another exciting new opportunity for the sharing economy.

Welcome to the brave new transactional world where you can leverage your living space capital via Airbnb, your driving capital via Uber and your erotic capital via the sugar daddy site of your choice:
I'm enough of an optimist to think that one day, people will look back at this moment in history and ask in wonder 'How the hell did people ever think this kind of thing was OK?' But, for the moment, we're up against both the market fundamentalists who believe that if you lack the foresight to already be rich, you should be grateful for any opportunity to sell yourself to the highest bidder and the naivety of the liberal commentariat against which the gods themselves contend in vain:
The socialists of the early 20th century eyed monopolies like Vail’s with optimism: take them over and their highly organised and unitary status means you can use them to run the economy. Today, if you wanted to re-order the economy to deliver participation and choice alongside social justice, it’s the sharing models you would start from.

The arrival of sharing changes the game when it comes to the social potential of technology. It was hard to see a route from Apple and Google to “dotcommunism”. It is quite easy to see it, though, if you began with the sharing sites, and made them cheap or free.
Paul Mason, reassuring Guardian readers that sharing sites could be the new engines of social justice (just so long as you ignore the massive inequalities of power and resources that make them work in the first place).

If you began with a sharing site like sugar daddy dot whatever and make it 'cheap or free' (i.e. pretend that it's not powered by money and inequality of resources) then bang goes the pull of the sugar daddy's capital ('But what first, Debbie, attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?'), along with his disingenuous assertion that this is some kind of entirely voluntary transaction between equals. Dress it up in whatever self-serving language you like - it's still the sort of crude desperation-driven deal that Kurt Vonnegut tore into in his novel Bluebeard:
'...Did you say that in the war you were 'combing pussy out of your hair?'
I said I was sorry I'd said it and I was.
'I never heard that expression before.' she said 'I had to guess what it meant.'
'Just forget I said it.' I said
'You want to know what my guess was? I guessed that wherever you went there were women who would do anything for food or protection for themselves and the children and the old people, since the young men were dead or gone away.' she said. 'How close was I?'
One day, I hope, we'll see technology actually liberating people by disrupting existing hierarchies in favour of greater social justice but, as far as I can see, the style of disruption currently in fashion is the sort that disrupts the lives of the already powerless for the greater convenience of the already powerful. The most striking feature of this style of disruption is that the technical ingenuity comes with a huge side-order of breathtaking shamelessness. Again, Vonnegut completely nails it:
Here is how the pirates were able to take whatever they wanted from anybody else: they had the best boats in the world, and they were meaner than anybody else, and they had gunpowder, which was a mixture of potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulphur. They touched this seemingly listless powder with fire, and it turned violently into gas. This gas blew projectiles out of metal tubes at terrific velocities . The projectiles cut through meat and bone very easily; so the pirates could wreck the wiring or the bellows or the plumbing of a stubborn human being, even when he was far, far away.

The chief weapon of the sea pirates, however, was their capacity to astonish. Nobody else could believe, until it was much too late, how heartless and greedy they were.
From Breakfast of Champions