Friday, March 15, 2013

The Tichborne Claimant

A woman has been fined £700 for saying that David Cameron has blood on his hands! And she was viciously assaulted by the police for this "peaceful and legal political protest in Witney".
I held up a placard that said “Cameron has blood on his hands,” and I shouted that “disabled people are dying because of Cameron’s policies.” I didn’t expect that to be a big deal, I only wanted to do my bit to show that we’re not all taken in by the rhetoric that disabled people are ‘scroungers’ and ‘shirkers.’
My face was pushed into the ground, I could feel blood coming from my nose, there was someone putting their whole weight on my back while someone else was stamping on my knees, along with various people grabbing and twisting my limbs. And then the officer on my back moved a knee up onto the back of my neck.
Unbelievable! Except, when things seem entirely unbelievable, it might be because we're not quite hearing the whole story. Young woman holds up a placard at an event, and shouts a slogan. And for that she is leapt on by the rozzers and, effectively, beaten up. Does that ring true? Well, turns out there's a touch more to it than that.
Bethan Tichborne had wanted to protest against Government cuts leading to the deaths of people with disabilities when she tried to climb over the barrier with a home-made placard in front of shocked schoolchildren.
District Judge Tim Pattinson said: “It is difficult to think of a clearer example of disorderly behaviour than to climb or attempt to climb a barrier at a highly security-sensitive public occasion.”
So the story is actually that someone tried to climb over a security barrier to get to the Prime Minister, while shouting that he had blood on his hands and carrying a placard. This is pretty much what the PM has a security detail for - what on earth did she think would happen? In that light, her account of her assault sounds more or less exactly what politicians' protection squads are trained to do in case of threat - immobilise them quickly.

The moral of the story is, if something seems too outrageous to be true, the chances are that it isn't.

Shane Watson

While we're still laughing at the Aussies, let's try and remember that real pain is being suffered Down Under. It is with the deepest sympathy that I link to one chap's understandable paean of rage and hatred.


If a picture tells a thousand words, then I present to you 28,000 words that may remove any sympathy for Shane Watson and the state of his Test career.
Is it worth pointing out at this juncture that Nick Compton now has as many test match hundreds as Shane Watson?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Austerity bites

There's something quasi-mystical about the release of quarterly GDP figures. It's far more like augurs reading the omens in bird entrails than anything more scientific. Is 'it' working? Ooh, negative 0.3%! Quick, sacrifice a virgin!

This is partly why I'm cagey about great sweeping prognostications about how 'austerity' is destroying the UK economy. Because for every clarion call that everything is terrible, you can find something that is rather more nuanced. My inclination is that the UK is in a bit of a hole, largely because much of the growth and prosperity of the last decade turned out to be illusory - froth on the top of the cappuccino. That being so, I don't think any Chancellor would be doing much different. The real blows to the UK economy are external:
No sensible person thinks deficit reduction had no effect on growth, but if austerity was to blame for the shortfall in nominal and real growth, you would expect to see it reflected in weaker than expected private consumption. Spending cuts and tax rises reverberating around the economy would hit household incomes and spending more than expected. You would also expect stronger than expected exports as companies put more effort into sales abroad than in the austerity-ravaged domestic economy. This pattern is indeed evident in Spain.
But the UK does not follow the pattern. In 2012, nominal private consumption growth was exactly as the OBR forecast in December 2012, faster than the late-2011 prediction and almost spot on the estimate in the 2010 Autumn Statement. A similar pattern exists after adjusting for inflation. 
Instead of households tightening their belts more than expected, by far the most important cause of stagnation was the terrible export performance. Had foreign sales last year performed as the OBR forecast in late 2011, nominal gross domestic product would have been £13.6bn higher by the fourth quarter and the annual growth rate would have been 4.9 per cent not 1.3 per cent. In real terms, the export shortfall is the difference between growth of 2.7 per cent and the 0.3 per cent achieved. To sustain the “austerity is the main cause of weakness” argument, you therefore really need to convince people that UK austerity somehow caused more pain to French, German and Spanish households, and hence to UK exporters, than it did to UK households directly. It did not.
 The 'obvious' solution is to look to export more to the BRICs than to ageing, weakening Europe. Easier said than done that though.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Contra-Caitlin

Hell, while I'm taking pot-shots at Caitlin Moran from the safety of my own obscurity, her column in last week's Saturday Times really was a crock of shit. Predictable, tired, left-wing shit. It's lede was the radical and original thought that we should probably just go ahead and renationalise rail, electricity, gas, water and telecoms, either now or soon, because privatised industries are less reliable, more expensive and less innovative than state-run alternatives.

Which is, not to put too fine a point on it, bollocks. As the OECD report on the effect of privatisations in the UK put it:
The evidence shows that the privatised utilities and infrastructure providers:
increased labour productivity, and sometimes total factor productivity, at rates faster than those generally achieved before privatisation;
offered real price reductions (except in the water industry, where higher charges were needed to fund significant quality improvements). In the telecommunications and gas industries in particular, prices have fallen at a faster rate than they did before privatisation;
achieved sustained improvements in levels of service quality, especially in the telecommunications and water industries; and
provided very substantial contributions to public sector finances.
 Or, as a paper by the PSIRU puts it, in relation to electricity privatisation:
Consumers basically want two things from their electricity supplier: reliability of service and affordable prices. By these criteria, electricity privatisation in Britain appears to have been a success: since privatisation in 1990, reliability has remained excellent and prices to small consumers have fallen in real terms by about 25 per cent.
And then there's this:
Competition, and the market, is supposed to make a business keen – carnivorous. But there doesn’t seem to be much... intelligence involved here. No plans. No big innovations. British Telecom were telephones in this country – and yet, somehow, as a privatised firm it totally missed the boat on the mobile-phone explosion.
We know by now not to expect much in the way of research from Moran, but c'mon. Hasn't she heard of Cellnet? Which turned into 02? And, whatever you think of BT customer service these days, it's a damn sight better than when it was run by the Post Office (via):
We needed a telephone and a photo-copier. We were told by the Post Office, which ran the state monopoly telephone service, that there was a fourteen-month wait to have a line and phone installed. We somehow bargained them into doing it within six weeks by pointing out that our predecessors in the building had used a switchboard with four separate telephone numbers, one for each of the companies that had used the place, and all we wanted to do was to re-activate one line. Until the GPO engineers came, we had to conduct all the new Institute’s business from the public call box on the corner, and we ensured we kept a ready supply of coins for the purpose.
The Post Office would not let us buy a phone; we had to rent one from them. This was their standard practice. The instrument they graciously allowed us to rent was a black, Bakelite instrument with a rotary dial, designed in the 1930s. For this magnificent piece of equipment we had to pay a quarterly rental of £14.65, or just under £60 a year. We overcame the problem by rewiring the place ourselves with extensions, and buying US phones on our visits there, complete with conversion sockets. This was contrary to all the Post Office rules, but it worked. And it meant that we were among the first in Britain to use such gadgets as recall dialling, wireless remotes and one-button dialling of our most-used numbers.

 
All this could still be ours! If the Times want someone to write about economics in an accessible and entertaining way, why not employ someone who has the first fucking idea what they're talking about.

The Agonies of the Left

This is absolutely genius.


Plenty more where that came from...

Twitter trolls

A boxer gets insulted on Twitter and responds by finding out his insulter's name and address, driving there (or pretending to) and threatening to beat him up. Hooray right? This is now the approved technique of responding to unsolicited abuse on Twitter.

So, presumably, when Caitlin Moran fantasised on Twitter about stabbing Toby Young in the face he should have gone round to her house, banged on the door and threatened to hit her? And we'd all have thought that was really funny?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

George Monbiot

I agree with George Monbiot. I think this reflects extremely well on Lord McAlpine. I also think it reflects pretty well on George Monbiot.
I have met with Andrew Reid of RMPI LLP, Lord McAlpine’s representatives, and they have suggested what is, as far as I can discover, an unprecedented settlement. They would like me to carry out, over the next three years, work on behalf of three charities of my choice whose value amounts to £25,000.
Fair play to both of them.

Uh Oh

This doesn't sound at all worrying.
North Korea Declares War Truce 'Invalid'
Pyongyang Declares End to 1953 Armistice.
Couple this with the comment piece in the FT recently by Deng Yuwen (you know, the deputy editor of the journal of the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China) titled “China Should Abandon North Korea”, and China's support for tighter sanctions following the North Korean nuclear missile test, and something of a pattern seems to emerge - not a terribly encouraging one at that.

Yuwen's piece argued:
Considering these arguments, China should consider abandoning North Korea. The best way of giving up on Pyongyang is to take the initiative to facilitate North Korea’s unification with South Korea. Bringing about the peninsula’s unification would help undermine the strategic alliance between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul; ease the geopolitical pressure on China from northeast Asia; and be helpful to the resolution of the Taiwan question.
I can't see that line of argument being particularly welcome in Pyongyang. All in all, it's hard to disagree with Gideon Rachman in today's FT:
There is also clearly a growing risk of military skirmishes between North and South Korea, perhaps in the next few weeks. And there must also be a chance that the North Korean regime will ultimately use its weapons – unleashing a nuclear war, just 500 miles from Beijing.
There's something to look forward to.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Colonialism

Cristina Kirchner, whose father was of German descent and whose mother was of Spanish descent, bases Argentina's claim to the Falkland Islands, whose population dates back to 1833, on the fact that the Falklands are an implanted colony.

Sometimes I find British politics depressing, but there are always reminders that it could be so much worse.

QTWTAIY

With all apologies to John Rentoul. The question in, um, question is that posed by the residents of the Falkland Islands:
Do you wish the Falklands Islands to retain their current political status as an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom?

Now's not the time for going into the historical and legal background to the sovereignty claims to the Falkland Islands. Suffice to say, on the one hand you have de facto possession dating to 1833, and a de jure formal claim dating back to 1690, and on the other you have the fact that the two capital cities are a mere 1180 miles apart (the distance between Buenos Aires and Port Stanley is roughly the same as that between London and Reykyavik).

What's odd though is the Guardian's sustained hostility to the idea that, in a dispute as to which country the Falkland Islands should belong to, the opinions of the people actually living there should be taken into consideration. In the past week there have been three articles on the referendum, variously describing it as 'meaningless', 'with no purpose' and 'rigged', from such august and impartial commentators as the Argentine ambassador. The last story, which states that the referendum "amounts to a rigged ballot", justifies that by the fact that only people who have been resident in the Falklands for seven years are entitled to vote. This is a surprisingly elastic definition of vote-rigging (it is, for example, less restrictive than UK election laws).


What's also slightly odd is that, in all the welter of comment on a referendum "called by the British in which only British citizens can vote to decide whether the territory they inhabit is to be British," no reference is made to the 2012 census - in which "fewer than a third of people consider themselves British, while 59% say their national identity is "Falkland Islander". Maybe staff at the Guardian ought to start reading their own newspaper, though God knows I understand why they don't.

Inevitable doom?

More on that last subject - are the Tories now irredeemably fucked, as some of their backbenchers seem to think? If the economy tanks, then yes I think they probably are. But I don't think the economy will tank. I suspect that GDP statistics aren't much cop (it being much harder accurately to measure a services economy than a manufacturing one), and that 2014-2015 will see steadily improving performance - not so much as to resolve all problems, but enough to run a 'Britain is back to work, don't let Labour ruin it' sort of campaign.

Unless, of course, the Tories do something completely self-defeating and daft - like a suicidal leadership challenge.

Eight glorious years

Things seem to have gang slightly agley. The economy's not in the best of shape (and I can see yet more growth suppressing flakes outside my window right now). Labour are executing a very discplined Fortinbras policy, leaving few hostages to fortune and setting the terms of debate (so every cut in public spending, which people generally support, becomes a tax - the bedroom tax, the granny tax, the 'tax on mums' - which people generally oppose). Polling is starting to look rather beastly.

A large part of the strife the Tories are in is inevitable. Despite wittering and warbling from the left, whoever had won the election in 2010 would have done more or less exactly what George Osborne has done - talk tough on deficit reduction plans, while covertly soft-pedaling as hard as possible to avoid depressing a pretty stagnant economy. None of the parties would have provided a 'fiscal stimulus', because the money to do so isn't there - according to the Bank of England. Britain in 2013 is still hungover from the binge years. Part of the reason that we haven't seen the size of the economy bounce back to 2008 levels is that much of that economy was froth on the surface - illusory wealth that hasn't returned because it was never really there.

People don't like hangovers, and they don't like governments that reduce public spending. Dan Hannan said, in relation to Hugo Chavez, that in Venezuela there is a saying that "there are no good nor bad presidents, only presidents when the oil price is high and when it is low." I suspect that David Cameron would have been an extremely good 'good times' Prime Minister. We may never know.

One point that does need addressing, though, is the one raised by Iain Martin's 'activist' friend here.

"Eight years after becoming Conservative Party Leader … Thatcher had got inflation from 22 per cent to 4 per cent and beaten the Argies. Heath had joined the EU. Churchill had won World War Two. Baldwin had seen off the General Strike and the Great Depression and broken both the Liberal and Labour parties, utterly. (No other Conservative leader lasted eight years post World War One). Cameron, on the other hand has … well, there's … umm …"


Well, for a start Cameron hasn't lost two elections, unlike Baldwin (1923 and 1929), Heath (1966 and 1974) and Churchill (1945 and 1950). For a second, he hasn't triggered devastating industrial unrest, unlike Baldwin and Heath. Equally, YMMV, but none of Cameron's policy decisions have been as disastrous as Imperial Preference, or a return to the Gold Standard.

And as a final point, Cameron has been Prime Minister for just under three years. The comparitor with Thatcher would therefore be March 1982. Inflation was 10.4% up slightly since the 1979 election, unemployment had recently risen over three million - roughly 12.5% and the Tories were polling behind (or at best equal to) Michael Foot's Labour Party. Just because we're conservatives doesn't mean we're forced to use rose-tinted glasses.

Trouble at mill

The Australian vice-captain, their best quick bowler, their next great batting hope and, um, Mitchell Johnson have all got dropped from the next test for not doing their homework on time. Words fail, rather.

The whole idea of getting professional sportsmen to prepare a presentation on three things they could be doing better is a rotten one. Apart from anything else, what could Khawaja and Johnson say they should improve on, given that neither has played a game on tour? What's Watson supposed to say? Stop being a bit rubbish? What about Pattinson - stop being the best seamer on either side?

It's the most counter-productive bit of coaching since Ray Jennings blasted a ball into the side of Graeme Smith's head by way of a warm-up. It must be a South African thing.

Thursday, March 07, 2013

Occam's papal razor

In 1976 Harold Wilson resigned. It was more or less entirely unexpected, and instantly sparked a dozen conspiracy theories - Wilson was a KGB agent, he was being blackmailed by MI5, Marcia Falkender knew the truth about some terrible scandal.

The truth was almost certainly more prosaic and sadder - Wilson had early-onset Alzheimers Disease. The early effects of this illness would have robbed him of his memory, his energy and his ability to do the job. His decision to resign was inevitable - by 1979 he was so deep into his Alzheimers that he needed to be dressed by his wife.

Matthew Parris in today's Times is worried by the Pope's unprecedented resignation:
I’m finding the whole story less and less satisfactory. Cardinal Ratzinger was not an outsider. This was not a job whose characteristics were likely to take him by surprise. He will have worked his way up by cautious conservatism and careful calculation. Nothing in his life has suggested an impulsive nature; nothing hints at a propensity to kick over the traces. He is not ill. He is not senile. He’s in good shape by the standards of the gerontocratic Catholic leadership. He has no family to spend more time with.

And suddenly — breaking all tradition but (more than that) defying the theological foundation on which his office rests, that a frail and fallible human is inhabited by the Divine Authority as a glove is filled by a hand — he leaps from the moving train, pleading fatigue. Shouldn’t a believer have left it to God?

The train hurtles on into the night. An old man rolls down the embankment. Something’s up. Something has happened. I have not the least idea what.


Pope Emeritus Benedict is nearly 86 years old. 45% of people over 85 have Alzheimer's Disease. Benedict watched John Paul II decline through Parkinsons and possible dementia. Would it really be so surprising that he shrank from inflicting a similar public decline into incapacity?

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Hopi Sen: better at graphs

Apropos of this, do go and read this, which is along the same sort of lines, but has much better graphs.

As a side-note, even given the Tory Party's current travails, I do hope they realise just how lucky they are in having an opposition that appears to prefer Sunny Hundal's analysis to Hopi Sen's.

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Tories and the dustbin of history

The Tories have already lost the next election, winning only 30.3% of the vote - less than John Major managed in 1997. This remarkably precise prediction is made today by John Ross in the Guardian, and it tracks a narrative of Conservative decline that Ross first made in 1983 in Marxism Today.

The methodology in each is the same - take as your starting point 1931 (perhaps the single most atypical General Election in the entire 20th Century); note that in this election, in which the Conservatives ran as a Grand Coalition party, with the backing of the National Labour Prime Minister, the Tories managed their highest ever polling of 55%; note further that since this historical high-water mark, the Tories never managed to poll as highly again; conclude that the Tories are doomed forever. In his original analysis, Ross concluded that the Tories' inevitable destruction will herald a crisis in British capitalism.

There is one main problem with this statistical determinism - and it is what you hear mumbled away in the small print of stockbrokers: past performance is not necessarily indicative of future results. Looking solely at the statistics, an observer in 1992 might reasonably have concluded that since the 1970 election Labour had failed to win 40% of the electorate, and that its core vote had now clearly dropped to roughly 30%, Labour was doomed never again to hold power.

There is, in fact, a second problem - John Ross is about as good a predictor of political events as a Mayan calendar. In a previous life he was the lead theoretician for Socialist Action (a Trotskyist splinter that managed to get its men into practically every high-level position that the then-Mayor of London could think of). In that capacity he was not, shall we say, notable for any great gift of clairvoyance. In 1989 he confidently asserted "We are not about to witness the re-establishment of capitalism in either Poland, Hungary or Yugoslavia." In 1991 he supported the attempted Generals' coup in Moscow, and said that the ruling class had to learn "that they will be killed if they do not allow a takeover by the working class".

This isn't a disinterested statistical analysis; it's a triumph of wishful thinking.

Friday, March 01, 2013

The appeal of UKIP

Well, Eastleigh was a bit of a cluster-fuck wasn't it? None of the three main parties can take that much pleasure in the result (although the Lib Dems, obviously, will be the most cheerful. Labour may not seriously have expected to win the seat, but I bet they were hoping for a greater increase in the vote share than a statistically insignificant 0.2%. The Lib Dems for their part saw their share of the vote fall by 14.5% - more than the Tories, albeit at a pretty unpropitious time for them. And the Tories? Well, Eastleigh may have been a tough nut to crack (all 40 councillors are Lib Dems), but if they want to get anywhere in 2015, they need to win this sort of seat. As it was, they finished third.

Because the real story of the election is UKIP. They clearly won more votes on the day than any other party, and if the campaign had gone on longer may well have won the whole thing. Why? Before answering, it's worth pointing out that I agree with the Dude on UKIP. I think it's an unserious party, and that it is the largest single example of the Fundamental Heffer Error, in that the party wilfully conflates what it wishes were the case with what is actually the case.

That being said, their brand of Poujadist populism is proving pretty effective. Tim Montgomerie trawled through their current policies before the by-election and found that the major points are a promise to cut taxes for "everyone" and abolish Employers' National Insurance. This substantial reduction in revenue is coupled with no cuts to frontline services, bringing back student grants, creating a "million jobs" through public and private investment, hiring more police and building more prisons. They also want to spend an additional 1% of GDP on defence. And, presumably, a pony.

The intention is to make people nod approvingly at each individual policy, without having to join them up. It's a terrific opposition strategy (and it would have been truly ironic if this brand of telling people only what they want to hear had jin fact beaten the Liberal Democrats - last season's brand of telling people only what they want to hear). This does raise a question though - if UKIP isn't really a serious party, are the people voting for it deluded, or stupid, or something else? I dislike writing off an electorate as stupid (Vicky Pryce juries aside). It's arrogant, and almost always wrong. There is, in any event, a better answer here. UKIP has made a position for itself as the anti-politics party. Just at present, there is almost no better position to be in.

Will it last? It may well do - provided the economy doesn't recover. People are disillusioned and angry with all the major parties; UKIP are the channel for 'none of the above'. It'll make 2015 even more interesting.