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

Monday, 22 June 2015

Millionaires' pressure group has no political agenda, apparently

'Millionaires prepare to launch £20million non-political campaign for Britain to quit European Union', announced a recent headline in the Torygraph.

As far as I can make out from hearing one of the pressure group's* representatives on the radio, the aims of this "non-political" campaign include a bonfire of EU regulations currently protecting employees' rights in the workplace, for example the Working Time Directive and the Agency Workers Directive.

Which sounds pretty damn  political to me.

Not that I've any objection to millionaires being able to openly express their dislike of regulations that stop lesser folk being exploited, just so long as everyone's clear which specific political changes they're advocating. I'll even allow them to claim that they're not being party political - even though this group's leader, Aaron Banks, also funded Ukip to the tune of £1m (it was originally going to be £100k, but thin-skinned former Tory donor Banks was apparently so enraged by being snubbed by William Hague, of all people, that he upped his donation by £900,000).

There is, as I've previously argued, nothing wrong with being politically motivated, despite the phrase being routinely used to de-legitimise any opposing viewpoint that the speaker (ironically, usually a politician) doesn't happen to like. But don't try to advocate changes which affect peoples rights (one way or the other), the power relations between different groups in society and the nation's relations with the rest of the Continent, then claim to be "non-political." Whatever your PR agency might say and your fellow oligarchs think, even low net worth individuals like me aren't gullible enough to fall for that one.

*Provisionally named “No Thanks – We’re Going Global."

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Decline and Fall teaser trailer

Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire is one of those books I feel as if I ought to have read, although the feeling's never been strong enough to actually do anything about it. Well, it wasn't until I read Gibbon's description of the trial of (Anti)Pope John XXIII at the Council of Constance;* 'the most scandalous charges were suppressed; the vicar of Christ was only accused of piracy, rape, sodomy and incest.'

In other words, Decline and Fall promises to deliver all the gossip and scandal any reasonable person could possibly need, thus rendering every 100 Shocking Celebrity Secrets You Just Won't Believe! article on the Internet obsolete. Well, that's my summer holiday reading sorted.

*Quoted in Colin McEvedy's The New Penguin Atlas of Medieval History.

Friday, 19 June 2015

Mommie Dearest

[Unelected technocrat] Christine Lagarde, the IMF's managing director, has made a little dig at those across the negotiating table.

The only chance for the talks to resume is to restore the dialogue "with adults in the room", she said at the post-Eurogroup meeting presser.

Observers are reading that as a dig at Yanis Varoufakis, the Greek finance minister [who wouldn't even have been there, but for that silly thing called democracy, invented by those childish Greeks].
The Telegraph

It it is so frustrating being an all-powerful, jet-setting technocrat, when you little people start behaving like ungrateful children who don't understand that mummy ALWAYS knows best. Why do you deliberately defy me?
You love it, don't you? YOU LOVE TO MAKE ME HIT YOU. Yes, what we need right now is some rational adults in the room to beat some sense into the ungrateful little wretches.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Don't mess with America's big ass!

In more breaking news from the Tronald Dump comedy campaign trail, Angelo Carusone reports that The Dumpster has been augmenting the audience for his campaign-launching speech with paid actors. For me, the best part of this story was the accompanying Tweeted picture of two slogan-waving activists/actors with the initial letters on their Trump campaign tees fortuitously obscured, turning the already weird 'HULK SMASH!'-style messages into works of surreal comic art:
It makes me pine for the sheer authenticity of it all - here in Britain we have to make do with politicians who only pretend to be blithering idiots in order to pick up the moron vote.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Tronald's dump

"The US has become a dumping ground for everyone else’s problems.

“They’re sending people that have lots of problems and they’re bringing their problems,” he said. “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists, and some I assume are good people but I speak to border guards and they tell us what we are getting.”

He promised that as President Trump, one of his first actions would be to build a “great, great wall* on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall”.
From Donald Trump's announcement that he's running as the official joke candidate in the 2016 US presidential election, as reported in the Graun.

According to Urban Dictionary, the expression "Tronald Dump" is a synonym for a rip off, lie, or deception (as in 'Are you Tronald Dumping me?').

Which seems a tad unfair to me - as far as I can see, The Dumpster's pitch was pretty much WYSIWYG. What you see is an unfiltered brain dump of whatever random batshit Tronald happens to have in his belfry at any given time and I expect that's pretty much what you'd get if you actually voted for him.

*After all, what could possibly go wrong with building a great big wall to keep people in their place? Only an idiot could fail to see what a brilliant idea that is.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Are we nearly there yet?

In dystopia, I mean. What if the answer to the common question 'Why is dystopia so appealing to young adults?' is 'Because they can see it happening all around them'?

After all, we've already got a Prime Minister who believes that it's irresponsible for the authorities to merely tolerate citizens going about their lawful business without interfering in any unspecified way they see fit, alongside the stealthy, creeping, casual deployment of increasingly-available surveillance technology by the guardians of our security and by corporate interests monitoring consumers for any attempts to circumvent to officially-approved retail franchises:
 ...cameras will record you and constantly check you’re not a criminal while a tag monitors your movements. At a festival. Somewhere you’ve paid a lot of money to go and let your hair down.

Most festivals treat visitors like imbeciles and cash cows as it is, with searches upon entering stage areas so you have to buy extortionate booze, and bans on fires, noise and laughter after 11pm. Add Download’s invasive snoopery into the mix, and the modern festival now makes Pyongyang look like one of those leafy hippie communes where no one elects to wear pants and the lingua franca is the bongo.

Worst of all, according to the Register, Leicestershire police are annoyed this has come to light now as they didn’t want the public to be aware of the surveillance measures until the festival was over. 
Luke Holland

Then we've got the more subtly unsettling voluntary panopticon of self-curated, self-censored social media:
Ultimately, Facebook is a narcissistic playground where the best, the funniest, the most charming aspects of our lives are publicized and the shitty stuff, the boring stuff, the beige that is most of our daily grind almost never gets posted. All those walls are edited at some level and that makes them, at best, a deformed mirror image of real life or, at worst, nothing more than a fictional movie of how we want people to see us.
Which would be bad enough if it was just the users doing the bragging and personal brand management, but you've got the Facebook algorithm lurking in the background, optimising you, the product, to conform to its own inscrutable template.

And when you've consumed enough interactive hyperreality, there's always the alternative hyperreality of reality TV, which seems to be moving ever closer to its exploitative, dystopian fictional archetypes ('Are you ‘Britain’s Hardest Grafter’? BBC invites jobless youngsters to compete for cash in Hunger Games-style reality show').

We're surrounded by so much creepiness in real life that some of it is bound to be recycled as nightmare fuel for an unsettled time of life.

Which isn't to say that the worst teen nightmares are all coming true at once. The worlds of dystopian fiction are violent places but, as per Stephen Pinker, the world - or at least our bit of it - really does seem to be becoming a less violent place.

I've even heard it argued that there's a link between the ubiquity of surveillance and the decline of violence. The argument goes something like this. If you're a medieval monarch,  you have very little idea what's going on in your kingdom - communications are bad, there's no printing, so you're dependent on scribes, great bureaucratic exercises like the Doomsday Book are the exception, rather than the rule, you and your retinue have to be constantly moving around the country just to have a chance of keeping tabs on what's going on. You can't keep an eye on everything from the centre and, conversely, others can plot and rebel and disobey you with relative impunity.

So, whenever somebody does flout you, you immediately behave with exemplary savagery pour d├ęcourager les autres. If  the chances of being caught are relatively low, the penalties for stepping out of line must be utterly terrifying.

As rulers and authorities are able to hoover up more and more information about citizens, people are kept in line by the new consideration that any deviancy has a high chance of being discovered and will very probably result in  a lesser, but almost certain, punishment, as opposed to the old-style low probability of discovery, augmented by extreme deterrents like the stake, hanging, drawing and quartering, or your head on a spike for anyone inclined to take a chance.

Which seems at least plausible enough for me to think that if we have nearly arrived in a dystopia it'll probably be one policed by the soft power of shame, the wish to conform, the withdrawal of privileges and blackmail, rather than by faceless armed guards, gulags and gladiatorial fights to the death on prime time.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Resistance isn't futile, apparently

There seems to a bit more of it about in America these days - sometimes because of this guy, occasionally in spite of him...
The Obama administration believed it had the votes necessary to pass the most-contentious piece of its trade legislation—Trade Promotion Authority—that would allow the president to finalize agreements with Pacific Rim nations and the European Union. But the labor movement was not prepared to give up. Instead, it caught the administration off guard by launching a surprise attack on legislation known as Trade Adjustment Assistance, a program designed to help workers displaced by trade and one which Democrats—and organized labor—have overwhelmingly supported in the past. Just 40 House Democrats—less than one-quarter of the caucus—voted for the bill, which fell in a landslide, 302-126. By defeating the aid measure, the labor movement rendered the administration’s careful work rounding up votes for Trade Promotion Authority largely irrelevant.

As the margin of the defeat became clear, some Democrats scrambled to change their votes to 'No,' a measure of just how unpopular the measure had become. 
Russell Berman 


Thursday, 11 June 2015

Flags of our children

A guy called Roman Mars did this TED thing on the design of US city flags recently. Which reminded me of some idle thoughts I once had about what the flag of  The Rest Of  The UK (TROTUK) ought to look like in the event of a Scexit, or whatever the hell you'd call a Scottish exit from the Union.

I came up with this:
The Red Ensign, as flown by British merchant vessels, seemed like a good place to start, reflecting the fact that TROTUK would still be part of an island with a long maritime heritage. In place of the Union Jack, I inserted a white circle containing a vertical line on a blue ground in the top left corner, which was supposed to represent the globe, bisected by the Greenwich Meridian,* another nod to the islands' maritime, globetrotting history (Greenwich might seem be a bit too England-centric, but I liked the global symbolism, not to mention the celebration of intellectual achievement and Swansea, Cardiff and Belfast all share the whole maritime thing).

Although I say it myself, I prefer my design to some of the other suggestions people have come up with, because:
  • It's reasonably simple and striking.
  • The Red Ensign has a purposeful, businesslike look, which I like.
  • The red, white and blue colour scheme gives a bit of continuity with the existing British flag.
  • It's fairly outward-looking, celebrating these islands' links with the rest of the world**, rather than perpetuating a xenophobic inward-looking nationalism.
  • It's obvious which way up it goes, unlike the Union Jack which looks almost identical either way up but has a slight vertical asymmetry which can lead to pompous, humourless pedants delighting in taking  huffy offence whenever somebody inadvertently flies the damn thing upside down*** (if you don't want people to get it wrong, design a better flag - you don't see people getting confused about which way up the Stars and Stripes or the Canadian flag should go, because somebody had the gumption to make it completely obvious).
  • There are no more crosses, so it doesn't privilege any one religion in a society that now includes people espousing all sorts of religious beliefs, not to mention quite a lot of irreligious people.
I must admit that it was fun to play around with the design, although I hope that squabbling nationalisms don't really force anybody to adopt any design for a TROTUK flag, a circumstance which could cause rather more pressing problems than just having to remember which way up a badly-designed national flag should go.

*Of course, there's always a danger of inadvertent symbolism, but I think my design's too geometrical to fall into that particular trap. It is, isn't it?

**We might not want to celebrate some of the times when we've reached out and touched the rest of the world (these islands' involvement in the transatlantic slave trade, the Opium Wars and the Bengal Famine were particular low points), but you can't sanitise history.

***These are the same sort of people who delight in correcting you when you call it the Union Jack, rather than the Union Flag (such people are, of course, completely up themselves and completely wrong).

Signal failure

So, last Friday the FT confidently announced that George Osborne 'will signal an end to “banker bashing” next week, amid a clamour from the City for him to ease off on regulation and cut the controversial bank levy.'

The signal clearly didn't get through to the Governor of the Bank of England when he 'called for longer prison sentences for bankers who break the law, in a speech attacking ethics in the City' at his Mansion House speech. 'I agree with Mark', added Osborne.*

Like a daft boy, I fell for the FT's trailed version of the speech, on the grounds that:
  • He who pays the piper calls the tune, so he might have blurted an outrageously indiscreet a shout out on behalf of his party's sponsors** while still pumped up with post-election-victory feelings of invulnerability.
  • Typically 'x will say'/'x is expected to announce' stories are deliberately leaked by the person being quoted to get the crucial agenda-setting sound-bite into the headlines.
Except when the story turns out to be complete rubbish.

I'm happy to have been proved wrong on this one. If publicly toadying up to failed, bailed, unjailable Big Finance is becoming as unacceptable here in Britain as it seems to be in the USA, that's got to be a good sign.

*Well, that was the gist - George's full banker bash went:
The public rightly asks: 'Why is it after so many scandals so few individuals have faced punishment in the courts?'
Individuals who fraudulently manipulate markets and commit financial crime should be treated like the criminals they are - and they will be. 
** There was a bit of flannel about how honoured Britain's economy was to be hosting such a grotesquely disproportionate concentration of dysfunctional, hypertrophied financial institutions (without mentioning HSBC by name), but no news of bank levy concessions and nothing so outrageous as Osborne's predicted channelling of Bob Diamond.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Brand values

HSBC brand to disappear from UK's high streets as bank renames branches 

Chief executive says HSBC will rename its UK retail arm after it has been ring-fenced - though the new name has yet to be chosen
Telegraph headline

Sounds like a re-branding no-brainer to me (and probably to anyone else who's ever seen Despicable Me).

Gulliver to relocate to Lilliput?

A major company which employs 48,000 people in the UK is planning to cut 8,000 of those jobs. Which is horrible news for the 8,000 people whose lives are about to be turned upside down. Job insecurity is no joke, especially a culture where you're one pay slip away from the moral stigma of being re-classified as an aspirationally-deficient specimen of undeserving poverty (serves you right for making the lifestyle choice to become the involuntary recipient of a P45).

In this case, there's something of a silver lining for the rest of us - the company in question is that chronically scandal-ridden, Too-Big-To-Fail behemoth, HSBC. Chief executive Stuart Gulliver may still be keeping us guessing when it comes to HSBC's threat to relocate its corporate HQ to Hong Kong, but size-wise, the organisation's direction of travel seems to have changed from a Brobdingnagian heading to a diversion some way down the road to Lilliput.

Since 2008, it's been easy to slip into despair and imagine that the TBTF banks had got away scot-free and would just carry on metastasising away, threatening the lives of their their host economies. But it does look, at first sight, as if the treatment may be shrinking the tumours:
Global regulators have issued dozens of rules aimed at making the biggest banks safer. That’s leading to another result some wanted: making them shrink.

HSBC Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest bank by market value, said this week it’s considering “extreme solutions” for some of its units. Royal Bank of Scotland Group Plc is reducing its U.S. trading staff and getting out of two-thirds of the countries where it operates. JPMorgan Chase & Co. is closing branches, raising fees on some institutional deposits and looking for ways to shrink its trading businesses.
From a Bloomberg Business article titled Biggest Global Banks Shrink Under Pressure From Regulators* (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Loook at The Graph).

Even if there is a good news element to this story, though, it's a qualified one.

The TBFT banks may have started shrinking in absolute terms, but what matters is their size relative to the rest of the economy and we shouldn't need reminding just how much that shrank after the bankers' crisis:
In other words, the banks have plenty of room to shrink, but still outweigh the rest of the economy, so maybe Mark Carney's nightmarish vision of of UK bank assets amounting to more than nine times GDP hasn't yet gone away. As Ann Pettifor wrote a couple of years ago, when it looked as if business for the banks was 'better-than -usual':
By contrast, business is better-than-usual for bankers. Not only are they too-big-to-fail, and too-big-to-jail, but the British government now actively subsidises their lending on existing housing – and in the process inflates house prices. The Chancellor is the banker’s strongest ally in Brussels where attempts are made by the EU to limit bonuses and tighten regulation. And now the governor of the Bank of England is cheering on the possibility “of UK banks’ assets exceeding nine times GDP and that is to say nothing of the potentially rapid growth of foreign banking and shadow banking” which he believes can be “a global good and a national asset”.

You're still gonna need a bigger rope

*Assuming that it really is the regulatory medicine that's shrinking the banks, rather the aftershock from the crisis/low productivity/secular stagnation/anything else that might lead to fewer investment opportunities.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Payback time

George Osborne will signal an end to “banker bashing” next week, amid a clamour from the City for him to ease off on regulation and cut the controversial* bank levy. 
FT (behind the paywall)
Now where was the NYT piece I quoted just before the election? Oh, yes:
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. 
The best politicians money can buy, brought to you by a party which has learnt nothing from the global financial crisis (except  how to line its own pockets by sucking up to the people who nearly destroyed the economy in the first place).

George Osborne, please step up to the podium to accept the Sepp Blatter lifetime achievement award. This handsome 24 carat gold pig, complete with solid gold trough and expertly crafted brass neck inlay is the City's special way to thank you for the willing sacrifice of your soul.

If you want a picture of Britain's future, imagine a stupidly expensive Gucci loafer stamping on a human face – forever.

*Weasel word alert - 'controversial' with whom, exactly?

Friday, 5 June 2015

Riding the tiger

If we are to believe Conor Lynch, the political debate on the other side of the Atlantic sounds as if it's in a more hope-y change-y place than it is here in Britain, at least when it comes to neutering the ravening beast that is Big Finance:
...if we are to believe the data suggesting the millennial generation is the most liberal yet. In fact, a few years ago, a Pew poll suggested that millennials (18-29) view socialism more favorably than capitalism, which is quite astonishing for the United States.
Elizabeth Warren and the rising liberal movement have created a real fear within the Republican party and Wall Street. Certain right wing pundits paint Warren as nothing less than a radical socialist, aiming to overthrow the capitalist system. This is fear. Fear that the new liberal movement is not just a fad, and that the future is moving leftward...
...The fact is, Wall Street is afraid of modern liberalism, and is working hard to kill it from within with the same arguments that were made in the eighties and nineties. The only difference is, today, we know just how bad neoliberalism has been for the majority of people, and how good it has been for folks on Wall Street.
Link here (trigger warning: article contains gratuitously annoying pop-up ad)

If we are to believe that the American future is moving, if not leftward, then at least away from the full-spectrum dominance of Big Finance, then why aren't we?

I think the answer has been around for a while. Remember the 'Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or 100 duck-sized horses?' question. A no-brainer version would be 'Would you rather fight a German Shepherd half your weight, or a tiger that weighs three times as much as you?' I think there wouldn't be much Internet debate about which was the least worst option here:

Total bank assets as a percentage of host countries' GDP (from a Zerohedge post written in 2010)
  • UK - RBS, Barclays, HSBC: 337%
Compare that to the top 5 banks in the US (a list which excludes hedge funds such as Goldman Sachs).
  • US - JP Morgan, Citigroup, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Fannie: just 56% of GDP.

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Castrate the City

Forget Cameron's 2017 Referendum, as under Lisbon 50-53 that can't get us out until 2020, by which time the City will have been well and truly castrated.
Just in case you were still under the impression that Ukip was some sort of anti-establishment grass-roots movement, here's City boy and Ukip donor Stephen Hill letting the world know that Ukip is even further up the City's fundamental orifice than the party that sent George Osborne trotting over to Europe to lobby for weaker bank regulation whilst the world was still reeling from the bankstas' crisis and gave Boris Johnson a platform to lecture the stupid proles about not being beastly to the bankers.