Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Is Dwayne Rational?

The liberal argument that punishment does not deter criminals is a curious one. There is probably some merit to the argument that those who break the law don't expect to get caught, but as the prison population testifies many do; and many offenders have string of previous convictions so surely experience would teach them that prosecution is a likely outcome. In this small instance from Stockton, the offender had 54 previous convictions. That's no typing error - by the age of 18 he had already been convicted fifty-four times of criminal activity when he decided to punch someone and steal their bicycle. It seems unlikely that he would discount completely the possibility of being caught a 55th time.

A rational criminal would look at the likelihood and the consequences of getting caught and decide if the reward justifies it. This simple rationality lies at the heart of most decisions to break the rules, from chancing 10 minutes without putting money in a parking meter to a multi-million-pound bank heist. By way of violent bicycle theft. Using this equation then dealing with crime is a matter of increasing the likelihood of detection and increasing the penalties for those convicted sufficiently to deter criminal activity. These are the two levers we have. There are crimes of passion where rage obscures reason, but it seems unlikely that the decision to steal a bicycle falls into this category.

Increased detection rates must surely be a goal of any police force, but as noted, at 54 previous convictions no rational person could discount the possibility completely. Dwayne is either a raving lunatic or he has no fear of the law.

The argument against deterrence then rests on the assumption that criminals have an irrational belief that either they won't be apprehended, or will suffer no ill consequences if they are. They simply act on random impulses to harm people and their property, and no harshness of sanction will alter this behaviour. The problem with this view is that you can not reason with irrational people. You can not change or predict their behaviour. It is random.

Dwayne in the article linked above doesn't quite seem to be acting on random, irrational impulses. He didn't, so far as we know, jump through a plate glass window, he didn't punch a baby or pretend to be a tree for hours on end. He violently stole a bicycle because he thought that he would either not be prosecuted at all or the consequences of prosecution were not severe enough to deter him.

If he is simply irrational and won't respond to disincentives then the only sensible course of action is to lock him up indefinitely to prevent him causing further harm, or to somehow re-educate him to look at their offending rationally, which still brings us back to the need for negative consequences. You can have rehabilitation efforts along-side tougher sentencing but without the starting point of a rational person who will respond to incentives and disincentives you have only random violence and theft. If you truly believe criminals are simply irrational then by definition you believe that they can never be safely released without a high probability of recidivism.

Dwayne was sentenced to 21 months in a young offenders' institution. With good behaviour he will probably be out in 12 months and would anyone be surprised if he re-offends? Whatever efforts have been made to reform Dwayne have failed on 54 previous occasions, but what is clear from his astonishing tally of convictions at his young age is that one thing that hasn't been tried is a meaningful period of incarceration.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Lord Snorty

Just a quick thought on Baron Sewel, recently caught in his apartment with 2 prostitutes and a load of cocaine. No question that he did wrong and as someone who is responsible for upholding standards in the House of Lords it's pretty indefensible. But who decided to film this, and why did it come out now?

Presumably he has been up to this sort of thing for a good few years, and much as The Sun loves a salacious scoop, planting hidden cameras on prostitutes to catch a serving politician dosen't really seem their style, especially post Leveson. Why Sewel? I'm sure he's not the only one. Why now?

As the Westminster paedophile scandal unfolds, centred around Dolphin Square, where Lord Sewel's flat was, you have to wonder if there's a bit more to it than simply a tabloid defending the public interest.

Friday, 24 July 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and the Media

Short of having a gun to my head it's highly unlikley that I would ever vote Labour. I blame the party and it's ideals for many of the problems Britain has faced for a century or more, from our bloated public sector to the persistent welfare dependent underclass, by way of industrial collapse and mass immigration. However, they are still the main opposition and with 5 years to go until the next election there is surely a chance that the next Labour leader will be Prime Minister; however unlikely it seems now, 5 years is a long time and lots can change.

So I've been following the leadership contest in the sort of vague and semi-detached way that sometimes allows you to see more clearly than if you were to hang on every word and read every press release. Something about this contest that has struck me as a bit curious is the treatment of Jeremy Corbyn - the veteran "old Labour" left wing MP for Islington North.

At first his candidacy was treated as something of a joke or a sideshow, something like a support race at a Grand Prix, complete with crashes, breakdowns and paint swapping overtakes, but still just a sideshow ahead of the main event. Anoosh Chakelian in The New Statesman doubted he would even get enough nominations. When he did receive the nominations, The Guardian went straight into attack mode, focusing on the divisive nature of Corbyn. This tried and true tactic of sewing division by over-reporting it is what did for the Tories long after the actual Maastricht battle was over.

The Telegraph then picked up on the rather mischievous #ToriesForCorbyn Twitter campaign to encourage it's mostly conservative-leaning readership to join the Labour party and vote for Corbyn, something Toby Young was confident would help "consign the party to electoral oblivion in 2020 - and silence its loony Left forever." 

As Corbyn secured significant support, the coverage of Corbyn's candidacy developed from this rather frivolous, good-natured diversion into something more sinister, culminating in fellow Labour MP John Mann writing an open letter to Corbyn demanding he explain why he didn't do more about allegations of child abuse in the 1980s in his Islington constituency. Again with the wide lens of semi-detached interest I saw this instantly for what it was. Mann has been an MP in the same party as Corbyn for 14 years where he presumably didn't see this as an issue, and now brings it up as he feels this makes him an "inappropriate" candidate for the leadership. Mr Mann appears to be accusing Corbyn of indifference to, or perhaps even collusion in child molestation. This would surely be a criminal matter, or at the very least make him wholly unsuitable to be an MP.

In fact the entire Labour party and much of the rest of the political establishment have very serious questions to answer regarding child abuse over the past decade. Practically the whole of Rotherham Council appears to have turned a blind eye to systematic sexual abuse of children up until 2013. How was one opposition backbencher really meant to tackle this problem against such a backdrop, at a time when it appears that the whole political establishment was turning a blind eye?

Mann's decision to bring this out now is playing politics with child molestation. The press, of course, picked up on the substance of the allegations and made very little of this rather crass attempt to smear Corbyn over allegations of insufficient action 25 years ago.

I hadn't really heard much about Corbyn before his leadership bid so I decided to read up on him. His particular brand of left wingery appears to be nothing that would have shocked say Ken Livingstone, the former (Labour) mayor of London who also associated himself with the IRA, opposed the Iraq war and spoke in favour of higher taxes on the rich. I certainly don't see in there anything that would shock the average Labour voter, who is almost a different species from the party leadership represented by the other three bland, Blairite candidates.

It's not quite clear why Corbyn is so unpalatable. The most radical policy he seems to have suggested so far is a requirement for offices to be kept below 30 degrees centigrade. In a country where this temperature is considered a heatwave this is hardly likely to be a hammer blow to the productive economy.

Whether by conscious design or a herd mentality in the media Corbyn seems to have been deemed unfit not by the members of the Labour party, but by the pundits, journalists and members of his own party's leadership, and they will now stop at nothing to scupper his candidacy.

Corbyn doesn't have a bone through his nose or a habit of walking around in a dish dasha. He doesn't appear to want land reform or the abolition of private property. He looks like a geography teacher, or practically any other natural Labour voter for that matter, and he has the views to match. Britain claims ad nauseum to be a tolerant, open-minded country where people succeed on their merits, not their appearance or their background. However when faced with a potential Labour leader who looks like a Labour voter it suddenly becomes a very intolerant place indeed.

Despite the fact that I disagree with just about every single one of those views I find it quite sad that so many people appear to be happy with this lazy and arrogant dismissal of a candidate who appears to represent a good deal of the traditional support of the party. Not because I especially want Corbyn to win - in fact I would quite happily see the Labour party disappear into obscurity and be replaced by UKIP as the opposition to the Conservatives. However, this level of susceptibility to the media is a very dangerous thing. It gives the illusion of a choice between 3 candidates who are almost identical in their outlook and policies, and even in their mannerisms and fashion sense.

That style and outlook is in turn almost identical to those of the Conservative party leadership, who are equally at odds with any of their natural voters; meaning the choice come election time is equally false and meaningless.

30 Year Childhood

Among all the reforms proposed for Greece as it lumbers through it's debt crisis I haven't seen anyone mention the fact that so many of that country's young people remain in "education" for such an absurdly long time. I remember when I was at university the extraordinary amount of people from that country who did Masters' degrees and doctorates, and their generous representation on the academic staff of nearly every department.

Of course that can't be anything to do with the economic crisis, can it? Education is good, and pays great dividends in later life as more qualified people earn more money, pay more tax and generally contribute so much more to a productive and wealthy economy, and an enlightened, intelligent society. If it was as simple as that Greece would make Switzerland look like a backwards third world country.

A few years after that when visiting a Greek friend from university I got talking to a policeman in an Athens suburb. He had studied in England, a Master's Degree in sociology, and later a Ph.D, focusing on some obscure facet of that subject. And here he was, patrolling a quiet corner of Athens, stopping graffiti artists and attending traffic incidents.

Being a normal policeman on the beat is an inherently simple job. Yes, you get to meet some of societies worst types and you're thrown into the middle of intractable disputes between unreasonable people. But you don't actually have to solve any of them as such. So long as they stop beating each other and smashing things up then you're doing it right. If it needs to go further then you take it to court. You don't need a Philosophical Doctorate in sociology, as evidenced by the vast numbers of policemen around the world without such qualifications.

There's nothing particularly wrong with a well qualified and intelligent policeman, and this is only one anecdote, but if this is indicative of a wider trend in Greece then it does point towards over education. You see all that time that this man was studying in Britain with support from the Greek government he was not only using Greek public and private money to do so, but he was not working or paying tax in Greece. Nor was he building the experience upon which people's careers progress. Unless he was a child prodigy he would have been close to 30 by the time he did actually start working and paying tax, for a job that he could have done straight from school when he was 18.

I believe this is indicative not only of Greece but of Europe and the wider world. An unquestioning obsession with education is meaning that people don't start work until their mid to late 20s. This has a knock on effect throughout his career as despite presumably tremendous theoretical knowledge, at age 50 he will still be 10 years behind contemporaries who studied less in terms of his experience.

The other result is educational inflation, where a degree is expected for most basic entry level jobs. Everyone has a degree. If you don't have a degree you must be some sort of failure, or at best a bit of a maverick. It might be a degree in Surfing but you must have one if you are to start any sort of career. And if, heaven forbid, you left school at 16 then you might as well go straight to prison. A Master's degree is probably about the equivalent of what a solid Bachelors was 30 years ago, and all the while that you are attaining these bits of paper you are sucking up public and private resources, and contributing nothing to the exchequer. Actually by age 16 year people are physically and mentally developed enough to work, as they have done for centuries before our obsession with academic credentials stole a decade of our productive lives.

Perhaps worse than the waste this entails though is the effect it has on those who feel that they simply must get a degree at all costs. At the very time they should be out learning about the world, people feel trapped and frustrated, learning abstract nonsense in an environment that is essentially a continuation of primary school. This often leads them to wrongheaded left wing politics, as evidenced by the proud crowing of organiations like Greenpeace and the Liberal Democrats about how much support they gain from the under 25s. This is overwhelmingly the support of people who have never actually had to stand on their own two feet or make any decisions which matter. They may be 25 but their mentality is more akin to someone 10 years younger.

Like the debt crisis in general, Greece is at the forefront of this strange phenomenon but not the only one. Across the western world, and indeed much of the eastern, people are spending longer and longer at university, acquiring qualifications which will gain them little to nothing in terms of financial well-being, and at best dubious "personal development." However every degree earned and every young adult whose childhood is extended to nearly middle age is counted as some sort of a success for politicians eager to tell the world how much they're investing in education, and how they are creating a highly skilled workforce fit for the modern age. In reality many of the alleged beneficiaries of this policy would be far better off learning a skill while earning some money, creating some value and even paying a little tax at the same time.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

"British" Influence

One of the most obviously spurious arguments for our continued EU membership is the claim that remaining in this organisation gives us "influence" over the formulation of European Union regulations. There's even a lobby group called British Influence, dedicated to telling us how great the European Union is for Britain.

The most obvious way in which this argument is flawed is that we don't really have any influence at all. Every British government since before we even joined the European Community in the early 1970s has said they will push to reform the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and yet still this dreadful, inefficient monstrosity lumbers on, producing expensive food, appalling waste and environmental damage.

In fact so weak is our position that it was heralded as a "significant victory" last week when the government managed to get assurances that British taxpayers’ money would not be used for the Greek bailout. At a time when the British government is still running a budget deficit and our own economy is slowly recovering from a major recession. To fund the Greek bailout would amount to Britain borrowing money to pay Greece's debts, for the dubious benefit of a currency we are not a part of.

If it takes "tough negotiations" to achieve this modest goal, how on earth do we expect to influence policy in our favour on any more substantial matters, where no such obviously correct principle exists? Apart from preventing additional squandering of our own money by the EU itself, what have we influenced?

However, the even more important way in which "we" in Britain have no influence in this foolhardy venture brings us to the question of who "we" actually are. We, it turns out, are represented by our sole European Commissioner Jonathan Hill, or Baron Hill of Oareford to his friends. Hill is currently the European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and Capital Markets. This means he has far reaching responsibilities for ensuring a stable banking system, establishing and implementing a banking union and a capital markets union across all member states by 2019.

You might not remember voting for any of this, or for Baron Hill to be the man to implement it. You might not have even known it was happening. But happening it most certainly is, and "we" are implementing it through Baron Hill of Oareford, and presumably stamping "our" influence on it.

So who is Baron Hill? So far as I can tell, he is a long-standing Tory party apparatchik who has never actually won an election in his life. After leaving Cambridge he joined the Conservative Research Department in 1985. He moved around with Kenneth Clarke in the late 1980s before joining the Number 10 Policy Unit in 1991 and working with John Major through until 1994; supporting the Prime Minister in the Maastricht negotiations and the subsequent railroading of that treaty through parliament. He was awarded a CBE for his troubles in 1995, and then went on to work in public relations consulting, ultimately founding Quiller Consultants in 1998. He was created a life peer in 2010, becoming Conservative leader in the Lords in 2013, until his appointment last July as European Commissioner. Didn't "we" do well?

On the face of it this sort of background is not that unusual for a Conservative politician. And indeed Hill doesn't appear all that unusual. Indeed, he may well be a competent, hard working and conscientious individual. He may have useful experience and even genuinely be dedicated to serving what he perceives as Britain's best interests at the highest level of the EU. However, he may not be any of those things. He may equally be beholden to all kinds of corporate or political interests. He may be lazy, dishonest or incompetent. He may be an ideological zealot or plain old corrupt.

The point is we will never know about any of this because as a European Commissioner he wields his massive power with no meaningful public scrutiny whatsoever.

If you are a major corporation or a particularly well-funded lobbyist you might be able to get access to Hill or any of his colleagues, but in this rarified world I have little faith that they will conscientiously fight the corner of the small businesses and individuals of Britain, or any other country for that matter. His former clients such as HSBC, or the government of the United Arab Emirates might be somewhat more comfortable with this arrangement (and I insinuate nothing untoward about this, except that we have no way of scrutinizing it), but to me it's an affront to the very idea of democratic government. Policies should be formulated and debated by elected representatives and open to public scrutiny at every stage, not ushered through in remote bureaucracies by party appointees.

And Hill, remember, is only the most visible of "our" representation in the European Commission. The vast ministry beneath him contains legions of functionaries from across the continent, existing in a parallel universe where the people of their own country, never mind those of the other 27 member states, are a distant abstraction, rather than being the point of having a government in the first place as they rightly should be in a democracy.

So there we have it. An unelected Tory party aparatchik who you may well never have heard of is the pinnacle of "our" influence in the European Union, and he does indeed wield considerable power over the banking and financial services industry across the continent. He may, or he may not have British interests at heart. He may or may not have good ideas about how to achieve his objectives. His 27 fellow commissioners covering Security, Energy, Trade and all the other major policy areas a government would cover, do so with exactly the same absence of scrutiny and an identical lack of any sort of a democratic mandate to do so.

This whole situation makes an absolute mockery of any claims of European democracy. The decades of fruitless tinkering at the margins of the European project are merely one symptom of the remote and corporatist nature of this venture. Talk of "reform" or of reducing the "democratic deficit" - as though autocracy were some bad habit you could scale back - is nonsense. The European Union is undemocratic to its core and only its complete disestablishment will remove the danger it represents.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Please do be clear

Cameron is talking tough on Islamic terrorism. From now on he will say the unsayable without fear of being labelled racist. He will stand up for British values of tolerance and liberal democracy. He will not stand back in the name of tolerance and leave communities to set their own standards on matters like female genital mutilation or arranged marriages. He's taking the fight to Islamic extremism. What's not to like?

I always find it pays to read Cameron's speeches as well as listening to them. When I listen I usually think he is on the right track, when I read them not so. This one is no exception. Cameron uses the phrase "let me be clear" in the way a  dishonest car salesman says "to be honest." Just as you might expect to hear "To be honest, 80s Alfa Romeos don't really rust" from the car salesman, David Cameron's insistence on "being clear" liberally peppered a speech which was anything but.

What sounded like aggressively promoting British liberal and democratic values actually reads as though he simply intends to apply more of the same. Extra state snooping powers, increasing recruitment of minority groups to the police and other public bodies, religion-of-peace type platitudes - though he is far too shrewd to use the actual term which has become impossible to say without irony.

What about the flip side of a successful liberal society which is a firm embrace of the idea of consequences. The near certainty that if you do A, B, C then X, Y and Z will follow, as sure as night follows day. If you're caught going to fight for an enemy state then your British citizenship is revoked. If you're caught using public institutions to promote your personal or religious cause then you will be treated as a serious criminal and face a hefty gaol term. If you are dishing out barbaric violence for any reason whatsoever then you will be punished to the full extent of the law.

These things don't even need to specifically target Islam. They are the underpinnings of a free society because without them people are not free, unless they are powerful enough to know they can escape the consequences of their wrong-doing.

Friday, 17 July 2015

This Really is a Coup

As the Greek debacle rumbles on, the hashtag #ThisIsACoup shot to the top of Twitter. The coup in question is the ongoing crisis which will almost certainly result in the removal of the Greek government unless they agree to go back on the referendum promise. It's all a bit strange that a country who joined the European Community as it then was as a way of preserving their new, fragile democracy should now have an elected government overruled by unelected bureaucrats.

Meanwhile in Britain an ever more surreal coup appears to be taking place, and no-one has yet remarked on it. The liberal-left have finally started to see that the EU isn't all that great after all.

There must be something in the organic Muesli at the Guardian where this progressive secessionism has taken it's firmest hold. Endorsements from the Guardian don't come much higher than running a story about a hashtag, reprinting the comments, showing how many young and trendy people are of this opinion. Simon Jenkins wrote a piece describing Greece's continued membership of the Euro as a "catastrophe." And just in case there was any lingering doubt they also gave a column to former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis. While George Monbiot is riddled with liberal indecision about it.

And it wasn't just the Guardian. An editorial in The Independent said they should leave the Euro too. Even the BBC is getting in on the act, with Economics funnyman Robert Peston describing the Greece bailout as a "capitulation" by Tsipras.

There have always been those on the left who are against our membership of the EU. They see it, rightly, as a corporatist venture designed to defend the interests of big business. As Owen Jones points out in the 1970s and even 80s the whole European project was very much a Conservative venture. It was Neil Kinnock who taught Labour to love the EU and was rewarded with a job at the European Commission.

The founder of UKIP Doctor Alan Sked was very much a man of the left, but his since it's founding during the time of the Maastricht treaty the party has become synonymous with the radical right, and it is they who have led, and indeed dominated the campaign for EU withdrawal. Those on the left, as both Jones and Monbiot allude to in their article, have almost reflexively supported our continued membership of the EU to disassociate themselves with those they perceive as xenophobes, conservatives and radical free marketeers.

However, if the left starts to examine EU membership in more detail I suspect the left-wing case for withdrawal will grow. Caroline Lucas of the Green party remains in favour of our membership, but quite tellingly she says that this is because leaving would put the things she holds dear - maternity pay and our open door asylum policy "in peril." By peril, of course, she simply means that the public could vote to change these things if they wished, which is basically what happens in a democracy. It can't be long before people on the left wake up to the fact that besides being an absolute affront to democracy, this has a flip side. Many other popular things the left would like to do such as renationalising railways or opposing TTIP depend on us leaving the EU and restoring democratic government.

Currently, the political class appear smugly confident of a comprehensive victory for continued EU membership, and the opinion polls support them. However, if those on the left started supporting secession in significant numbers this could radically alter the electoral arithmetic in a way that Cameron hasn't anticipated, and make withdrawal much more likely.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Revenge Porn

Can you hear it? The faint murmur somewhere in the distance of big government's war drums signalling the start of an offensive to create a new law, ending a system that works fairly well to replace it with one which I can only assume will work considerably better for someone.

I'm talking about revenge porn. The rather nasty act of posting up intimate pictures of your ex on the internet to humiliate them. An epidemic which has reached such epic proportions that according to the Guardian in the 6 months to April this year the 14 police forces who even bother to record the numbers received a total of 139 complaints. For comparison, there were 33,000 burglaries in England and Wales in the month of April alone. Yet a quick search of the term 'burglary' in the British section of Google news shows just a handful of examples from local papers. I don't see any Guardian editorials calling for changes to the law or celebrity cases where a former X Factor winner takes to Twitter to demand we put burglars in prison. You don't see airbrushed celebrities claiming burglary is a form of abuse, or any of the other features that you will see on a similar search for 'revenge porn' on Google news.

So what's the story? Applying the usual 'follow the money'  maxim leads me to the idea that there will be changes to the copyright laws. As things currently stand, pretty well anything that is visible in public can be photographed, and the photographer then owns the copyright. Being photographed does not give me any claim on that photograph, rights as to how it is used or claim on revenue derived from it. This is based on the sound principle that you don't own the light that bounces off you which creates the image recorded. There are certain exceptions where injunctions can be obtained to protect privacy, and certain situations where repeatedly photographing someone who does not wish to be photographed is a form of harassment, but the general rule is that if it can be seen in public it can be photographed in public.

The laws appear to work fairly well for most people, most of the time and embarrassing as it may be to have a photo posted up on some obscure website and viewed by strangers for a few weeks, it will soon be pushed down more salacious trivia and forgotten. Sorry 22-year old who wishes to remain anonymous, you're not really that interesting. It's hard to see the justification for major changes to copyright laws to protect the few dozen people who are victims of this.

However, certain celebrities and politicians do have a problem with this and their war against press freedom has been gathering pace for a few years. Their privacy was one area of focus the far-reaching Leveson enquiry investigated, and the super-injunctions sought by various people in the public eye are another example. The next logical step is to do what many other European countries already do and alter the law essentially giving the person photographed a claim to the photograph. The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge won such a case in France in 2012.

It's understandable why people would want that. No-one would like to have their every move photographed, their every unflattering picture spread across the tabloids and their every folly in the public domain. However, the reality is that many of these celebrities have a symbiotic relationship with the press. They need the press to publish their private lives and report their every movement in order to maintain their celebrity. The question is not whether they will have more privacy but whether they will have more control over their public image, and perhaps a claim on the revenue generated. For those with something more serious to hide than middle-aged spread or a drunken indiscretion then the incentive for such a change is even greater.

The principle behind this though it quite dangerous for the governed and attractive to those with power. As mentioned above, a photograph is reflected light. It is simply what is visible at a certain point in time in a public place. If the subject of a photograph can own the photograph then why can't the subject of any other story? Or an audio recording? Supposing I see one of these silly celebrities cavorting around and I can't take a picture, can I report it at all? Suppose it's something less trivial than Cheryl Coles new love interest. Can I report the energy minister using the oil company's Lear jet? Or the MP putting a meal with his friends on expenses?

Can I report anything without the permission of the subject?

It's hard to really speculate what the upshot of this law will be more generally, or even what form it will eventually take. But it seems worth noting that the relatively small number of people who are victims of revenge porn are little more than a sympathetic battering ram to drive through laws for the benefit of a different group of people altogether, and laws that will do much to undermine transparency in public life.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Bloody Asians

Reading about the dreadful Rotherham abuse scandal, where the council basically covered up child abuse for fear of upsetting Muslims, I noticed preferred term appears to be "Asian." Look at this BBC article which manages the extraordinary feat of discussing the whole case without once even mentioning the religion of peace. They mention that the abusers were Asian, and note that many of them were from Pakistan, but not their religion. Which seems sort of significant.

"Asian" is a peculiar term. If you were to outline Asia on a map of the world it would take in Russia east of the Ural mountains, down through the Bosphorus, down Suez and out into the Indian ocean all the way beneath Indonesia to the northern coast of Australia, and up north past the Phillippines to Japan. It's a huge area which covers the majority of the world's population and land mass. It's a very loose definition inherited from ancient Greece, where it was used to define just about everything to the east.

I wonder how other "Asians" feel about this in relation to child abuse gangs. How do Indian and Chinese people feel about the media discussing Asian abuse gangs because of one very specific group people from within the vast and varied chunk of planet earth.

These are plainly and simply Muslim gangs who abused non-Muslim children and hid behind the fact that the council and the police were too afraid of offending them to tackle the problem. The continued cowardice of the media is acknowledging this fact is not helping anyone.

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Now what?

The discussions between Greece and the Euro Group are a curious sort of negotiation. Normally when two parties negotiate each has something that the other wants. Greece, with a bankrupt economy, an intransigent socialist government and a population who overwhelmingly rejected the proposed bailout, doesn't appear to have anything to offer. Across the table meanwhile sit the European institutions and governments whose agreement is needed to recapitalise the Greek banks, enabling the country to function again.

So one might think that this was less a negotiation and more of an impassioned plea for a slightly less drastic austerity package to secure the funds needed before the banks are empty, the fuel pumps run dry and the hospitals run out of vital medicines. After all if the two sides ultimately can't agree on this then Greece will be ejected from the Euro, something Tsipras has expressly said he is against on several occasions.

The trouble is, this is the only bargaining chip Tsipras has. Leaving the Eurozone is the only course of action which actually makes any economic sense at all for Greece. Trapped in the single currency it will remain uncompetitive and locked into a downward spiral of high unemployment and negative growth. Outside, with a greatly reduced currency and the now inevitable debt default Greece can begin to rebuild its tattered economy.

Of course, this is the very last thing the Euro Group want. If Greece were to leave the Euro and return to growth then Portugal, Spain perhaps even Italy would follow. The whole single currency project would be shown up to be a damaging and ill-conceived project driven entirely by political dogma, without so much as a nod to well-established economic theory.

This is not a case of the Eurozone deciding on whether or not to eject Greece, but of the European Union mandarins preserving their political project in the face of economic reality. Their method, of course, will be bullying and threats, and with Greece running out of cash, fuel and medicine they have a very strong hand to play.

The best possible hand Tsipras could play is to demonstrate that he is quite prepared to leave the Euro and issue it's own currency. He does of course need to be actually prepared to follow through with this. A drastic action, and a certain loss of prestige for Greece, but in the long-term almost certainly better than the status quo.

However my feeling is that threatened with the collapse of their project and a public admission of the errors the EU officials would offer Greece something very much more attractive in order to stay in, and would also realise that ultimately their interests are best served by returning Greece to growth, not bleeding it dry to punish them for a debt they can never hope to recover.

Monday, 6 July 2015


The Greek public have, by a fairly large margin, voted a big "Oxi" (No) to the bailout package proposed by the "troika" of the European Commission, the European Central bank and the IMF. Exactly what this means for the Greek people is not yet clear, but leaving the Euro seems to be almost a given.

The question now becomes what next? There appear to be two basic options:
  • Greece and her creditors return to the negotiating table and work out a new deal.
  • Greece leaves the Euro and reverts to a free floating Drachma
While both sides profess to want Greece to remain in the Euro it seems inevitable that there will be further negotiations before a final decision is made. Quite what Greece, bankrupt and isolated will be able to gain from these negotiations is not clear. The original offer has now expired, the first tranche of debt has been defaulted on and there is serious talk of Greek banks collapsing this week. On the EU's side of the table, we know from the fiasco over the Lisbon referendums that the EU do not like being snubbed by the electorate. The default position is to ask again and if this looks doubtful then you change the title slightly. There is no reason to think this won't be the same again this time. 

History and a bit of common sense tell us that this is the most likely course of action this time around. Prime Minister Tsipras has had his moment in the sun, Greece has shown it's mettle with the eyes of the world on it and crucially Yanis Varoufakis, the Finance Minister and bĂȘte noire of EU officials has gone, recognising that he would be a divisive figure in any negotiations. As an aside, what a curious situation here one of the principal architects of the No vote and leading figures in the search for an alternative solution is now excluded from the formulation of that solution because he upset the sensibilities of the European political elite.

So negotiations are likely to be quite empty, and as the cash, fuel and medicine run out in Greece, the negotiations are also likely to be quite quick. I would expect to see enormous pressure for a fresh referendum on an almost identical deal in the next few weeks, and enormous pressure from the Greek population to do something to get their country functioning again. 

It meems probable that the Greek government will cave in to this at some point as this the quickest and most certain way of getting essential services up and running again. Say yes and the money flows again. Until next time. 

However, if Greece can summons the courage to stand by its decision then it will find itself outside the Euro, and will have to come up with an alternative. The most obvious alternative would be the reintroduction of the Drachma, which would provide a tremendous opportunity to operate a currency which realistically reflects the economy behind it. This would enable exports and tourism to pick up, unemployment to fall and the country to return to something like growth. 

It would also mean a period of instability as the new currency found it's level against the Euro, probably at a level which would mean lower real incomes and consequently high inflation for a period. There would also likely be a transition period where importers would need to get their hands on foreign currency in order to bring in their goods from outside Greece. 

This would have the effect of forcing Greece to live within it's means as it would only be able to import what it could afford with hard currency earned from what it exported. As when Britain left the Exchange Rate Mechanism in 1992 this could, if handled properly be a rebirth from where Greece could build a stronger economy, which is better for Greece and better for Europe. 

The Greek Disaster

You would have to have a fairly cavalier attitude to democracy to be happy about the plight of Greece, who joined the European Community in 1981 putting the horrors of a military dictatorship behind them and looking optimistically forward to a future in the Europe of liberal democracies. A generation on they are held to ransom by the ominously titled "troika" of unelected officials in the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the IMF. How did it come to this?

Firstly, there's the simple truism now obvious to all that Greece should never have been a member of the Euro. While this is partly the fault of the Greek government of the time and was eagerly supported by a population who saw it as a key step to economic stability it would not have been possible without the collusion of the European Commission and the other Eurozone states who were keen that their project should be as large as possible. This sort of crisis was predicted at the time by pretty much anyone who understood basic economic theory and didn't have a vested interest, however it was pointedly ignored by those who did have a vested interest, or who simply believed that they could overcome the economic reality of the project with the sheer political will behind it.

Secondly, there's the question of who this whole debacle has benefited. And it shouldn't come as a surprise to learn that it wasn't all 50 something Greek pensioners and ouzo sellers. In essence, Greece was locked into the Euro at an artificially high exchange rate, meaning it's exporters and its tourist industry were hampered while imports were relatively cheap. An official from the CDU gave a startlingly frank admission of this when he pointed out that Germans visiting Greece "see what the government has wasted its money on. You see these huge air-conditioned Daimler buses which go to nowhere with just one passenger." Buses produced by the German company Daimler AG, manufactured mostly in Germany, were of course also exported enthusiastically as German enjoyed the opposite effect of a currency undervalued relative to the strength of the German economy. 

Under free floating exchange rates the Drachma would have declined in value against the Deutschmark making German imports more expensive in Greece, and Greek imports (or indeed holidays) cheaper for Germans. In the straight jacket of the Euro an unsustainable bubble developed in Greece, prices rose, unemployment soared and government spending outstripped tax receipts. 

The banks who funded this splurge managed to dump their exposure onto the ECB and the IMF, in a package presented as a Greek bailout in 2010, however it now seems that this was more a bailout for the banks than for the country. 

It was quite obvious by the time of the crisis in 2009 that this situation could not continue. The first bailout came with conditions of austerity attached and each subsequent bailout has demanded greater cuts. As Yanis Varoufakis points out on his blog that over the 6 years of Greece's economic difficulties wages have fallen by some 37%, pensions by up to 48%, state employment has been slashed by 30% and consumer spending is some 33% down. By any measure, these are drastic cuts and a period of 6 years would seem like a fair trial of this method. It isn't working. In fact, as Varoufakis continues this has arguably created more problems than it has solved. Real GDP has fallen, unemployment has leaped to 27% and the black market has surged making tax collection even more difficult. Debt meanwhile has ballooned to an incredible 180% of GDP, triple the 60% ceiling laid down by Maastricht. 

Greece's mistakes are numerous and catastrophic, but there are no bad borrowers without bad lenders. Debt implies risk and, in this case, the risk did not pay off for Greece's creditors. Initially Greece's creditors were private banks, but the ludicrous decision by the ECB to buy this high-risk debt from the banks under the misleading pretext of a "bail out" for Greece has now spectacularly blown up in their faces and saddled European taxpayers with an enormous burden of debt.

What a terrific irony that this lesson in capitalism has been taught to the world by a Marxist political party running a bankrupt country.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Cameron's Fable

One of Aesop's most memorable fables tells the tale of the sun and the wind attempting to get a man to remove his coat as he walks along a road. The harder the wind blows, the harder the man grips his coat and the wind ultimately fails. The sun then comes out and shines brightly bathing the traveller in pleasant warmth. Within a few minutes, the man takes his coat off and continues his journey in great comfort with his coat under his arm. 

Well-meaning liberal types like the teacher from whom I first heard this story in a school assembly many years ago, and probably like David Cameron, would say that it shows the power of kindness and giving versus raw brute strength. They're not entirely wrong, but another way to look at it would be the power of incentives and the impotence of applying ever greater force against them. 

Britain appears to be trying to be both the fierce north wind and the pleasant sun and ends up being a wet weekend. The sun which we shine so brightly on those in the third world is the idea of Britain as an open, multicultural paradise where housing, education, healthcare and even cash are simply lavished on anyone who manages to get across the channel, and if you are so inclined, the abundant well paying jobs will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. We even send our navy to the Mediterranean, hundreds of miles from the British mainland, to actively assist illegal immigrants crossing from North Africa to Italy. We have regular stories in our tabloids of families of a dozen illegal immigrants claiming benefits and housing which would be out of the reach of many ordinary working people.

Of course many decide this is too good to pass up, and so turn up at Calais ready for their passage to the land of plenty. At this point the bright and friendly sun disappears and the cold north wind blows miles of security fencing, CCTV cameras, steep fines for anyone caught transporting them (even if they didn't know it and reported it to the authorities as soon as possible, see here) and apparently a host of other "tough" measures to combat this problem. 

All this is incredibly foolish, and it isn't even kind.

First of all, let's deal with kindness. I've spent enough time in less wealthy parts of the world, particularly Asia, to know that there are a good many people in these countries who believe they can simply turn up in England and set up a noodle stall or start driving a taxi and instantly make 5 or 10 times the money they make at present. Surely they think, you can share a room with some friends make money and live the good life. 

So they fall prey to criminal gangs who charge them good money to transport them and promise work which often turns out to be prostitution or something else illegal and exploitative. The journey itself is often perilous as testified by the number of illegal immigrants who are fished out of the Mediterranean or towed into port by the authorities. How many more don't get saved or die on route to the departure points (some of them are from sub-Saharan Africa) is anyone's guess. 

They don't consider the fact that they will be an illegal immigrant in a country which doesn't want them, where the language and the culture are completely alien to them and legitimate employment strictly off limits. It's too cold to sleep outside and it's horrendously expensive. This is not 19th century New York where you can walk into a job as a labourer on Monday morning and get a nice wad of cash on Friday, or head out into the vast unpopulated continent and seek your fortune. It's an old, settled and densely populated country with limited resources.

So they fall prey to criminal gangs who charge them good money to transport them and promise work which often turns out to be prostitution or something else illegal and exploitative. The journey itself is often perilous. Looking at the number of illegal immigrants who are fished out of the Mediterranean or towed into port by the authorities. How many more don't get saved or die on route to the departure points, some of them are from sub-Saharan Africa, is anyone's guess. 

Our supposed kindness is encouraging them to risk life and limb for a false promise. However, these people are desperate and still willing to try. 

In order to stop this, we need a simple, clear and consistent policy of making sure that illegal immigrants caught in the UK are deported and blacklisted. We need to make sure people caught knowingly employing, housing or transporting illegal immigrants are punished severely enough to make it not worthwhile. And above all we need to stop helping them coming here. Any boat caught bringing illegal immigrants from Africa to Europe should be turned around and escorted back to it's departure point, anyone caught in the back of a lorry at Dover should be returned to France on the next ferry without question. 

Stopping illegal immigrants is not about having more or higher fences, it needs the political will to make it not worthwhile. We have the laws in place anyway, we have the vessels on patrol and towing boats anyway, and we have an immigration policy whereby legitimate migrants can live and work in the UK without needing to stow away in the back of lorries. We just don't have the fortitude to actually uphold these laws. Until we do they will keep coming in ever greater numbers, and we will have these desperate scenes at our ports and the empty tough talking from Cameron and others. 

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

The Referendum, Comrades

It's an often overlooked aspect among the far more interesting turmoil of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in March 1991, the population of that miserable and desperate empire went to the polls to hold a referendum on the future of the bloc. It was, in Soviet terms a fair and open poll, opposition was allowed and indeed managed to win 22% of the vote who disagreed with the proposition that it was necessary to preserve the Soviet Union in some form.

Of course as we do all know, by the end of that year the voters hopes were dashed and the crumbling became an avalanche from Vladivostok to the Baltic, as the communist regimes fell. Why did this happen, if as the poll suggests and overwhelming 77% of the Soviet population wished to preserve the union? And what, if anything, does this tell us about our own referendum on EU membership?

Firstly, a quarter of a century on, it's important to put this in some historical context. Throughout the 1980s the command and control economies of Soviet Union and her allies had struggled. The long and protracted war in Afghanistan had drained resources and sapped morale. The constant shortages of just about everything made a stark contrast with the west, then enjoying an economic renaissance. The Berlin wall, the vast stubborn concrete symbol of Soviet oppression, had fallen 2 years earlier and revolutions across the other communist nations of Eastern Europe had left the USSR an isolated and anachronistic place. The appetite for reform was vast, and President Gorbachev, despite being very much a Soviet man, was also a moderniser.

While the west viewed the transformation of the Eastern Bloc as a liberation many in the east saw only the chaos and danger. Mass unemployment, the fire sale of state industries and the hasty liberalisation of markets previously controlled by an all-powerful state. And this in small countries such as Estonia and Czechoslovakia. What would happen if the mighty Soviet Union collapsed and splintered into it's constituent republics was a question on the lips of many people far beyond the borders of the Soviet Union.

It was in this environment that the Gorbachev administration made the monumental decision to consult the people, but not quite in the open-ended way that, for example, Swiss voters are routinely consulted on local policy. Instead, the Politburo, knowing full well what answer it wanted to get from the referendum framed the question thus:

"Do you consider necessary the preservation of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics as a renewed federation of equal sovereign republics in which the rights and freedom of an individual of any nationality will be fully guaranteed?"

A rather abstract and loaded question. Equal sovereign states, guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of each individual, or chaos and mayhem.

Who in that environment, fed on a diet of Soviet propaganda and fearful of the anarchic collapse of their society, could really vote against such a proposition? Although a sizable minority did, the result was a resounding 77% in favour of maintaining the Soviet Union in some form. Even as the Soviet Union, in which nearly every voter had lived their entire lives by 1991 fell to pieces and the discredited leadership grappled with economic collapse, local breakaway republics and a restless population, people voted Yes. They voted for unity, for continuity and against a great leap into the unknown. Exactly as they were expected to. 

Yet just months later the same people enthusiastically voted for Boris Yeltsin as the first President of the new Russia, a radical liberal reformer, and by the end of the year the Soviet Union, arguably the most despotic regime of the 20th century, was no more. 

Comparisons between the European Union and the Soviet Union are hyperbolic - we don't have shortages of staple goods, we don't have break away states or any of the other symptoms of the disorderly fall of the entire economic system of the communist block. However, comparisons with the referendum of 1991 and ours are not entirely misguided.

Cameron, like Gorbachev, is very clear on the answer he wants and makes no secret of his belief that we belong at the heart of the European Union. As in the Soviet Union, the people are to be consulted, but very much on the terms of the leaders. The question - “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” - is not as abstract or convoluted as the one put to the people of the USSR but it begs the same question. What is the alternative? EEA? EFTA? A bilateral free trade agreement? A customs union on the Turkish model without the political dimension? A totally independent trading relationship under WTO rules? Or perhaps worse, a damaging trade spat with our jilted neighbours, keen to quell any thoughts of secession in other member states. 

Ongoing "reform" is another theme where the machinations of Cameron are not unlike those of the last President of the Soviet Union. Cameron's Glasnost so far appears to consist mostly of reforms to welfare to make it more difficult for foreigners to claim benefits. A fairly minor detail in the context of a debate about national sovereignty and democratic legitimacy.  If Cameron did nothing else between now and 2017 he couldn't force through EU treaty change and without the unanimous agreement of the other 27 member states he would find this nearly impossible. Yet this doesn't stop him, Soviet-style, heralding his marginal tinkering as a great success. Nor does it stop our own Pravda like media playing along with this absurd charade.

Boris Johnson, making secessionist noises has already given this game away. by saying that the public should vote to leave in the referendum as this will give Cameron the mandate to demand bigger reforms. It was meant to sound all blustery and pro-British, but the inescapable logic of it is that even if we do vote to leave the EU then this will only be taken by the political class as meaning that they need further "reforms" before holding another referendum. The language maybe all British bulldog but the thought behind it is Soviet.

The referendum on EU membership is not about consulting the British people about an important decision. It's an exercise in getting popular endorsement for a policy which the government, opposition and pretty much the whole political class are committed to anyway.