Category Archives: news

Interesting Times

The government’s latest announcements are sounding increasingly like NuLab Lite: government to intervene in markets, to pick winners and losers, to pour other people’s money into selected places.  Selected by whom?  You can be sure the job of administering pots of public money like that will be a magnet for corruption!

  • Taxpayer to pour yet more money into housing (and the debt bubble) by underwriting banks losses on big mortgages.
  • Slush fund for lending to small businesses.

On a more positive note, I expect that they’re taking another leaf out of NuLab’s book, and that some of these announcements will lead to very, very little action.  Let us hope!

But something more interesting is happening.  Instead of the mainstream media cheerleading all these interventions, they’ve united to rubbish them.  Across the political spectrum, we have a remarkable degree of agreement:

Ian Cowie in the Telegraph (political right): You really could not make it up. Government proposals for taxpayers to underwrite looser mortgage lending for first time buyers may help buy-to-let landlords exit the housing market with handsome profits before house prices fall further. But they are unlikely to be of lasting benefit to anyone encouraged to take on excessive debt before interest rates rise from their current historic low and more homebuyers find themselves in negative equity.

Mary Ann Sieghart in the Independent (political centre-left): The one thing missing from today’s housing strategy will be an outright acknowledgment that lower house prices would be a good thing. It’s still too much of a political taboo. But ministers know that it’s exactly what the younger generation need. So do prospective buyers and their parents.

Matt Griffith in the Guardian (political left): While some of the initiatives – notably the government’s pledge to provide insurance for mortgages to new-build properties – are the equivalent of an intergenerational mugging: the state underwrites young people taking on a huge debt for an asset that is clearly overvalued.

Andrew Ellison in the Times (political right): A strange conspiracy maintains the high cost of homes – hence these weird schemes to help the first-time buyer.

James Saft at Reuters: Under the plan both builders and the government would contribute funds to partially indemnify lenders against what I am betting are the inevitable losses. Borrowers, who are almost by definition younger and less well off, will still bear all losses, but will be rewarded with the chance to take out the kind of loan which has proven time and again to be a bad idea.

Wow!  They really are all singing from the same hymn sheet.  Just a shame they took so long to notice the problem!  Evidently this blog was ahead of its time, for example in August 2007:  … the taxpayer money going into this helps inflate the price of anything nice, by lifting the market in general.

Eventually perhaps they’ll put the final pieces of the picture of overpriced housing together:  If chickens can’t come home to roost now for property millionaires and bankers, we’re transferring yet more burden onto the productive economy.  And that’s tilted towards the young (because fewer of them own property) and high-earners (who pay more tax).  That’s precisely the people who will be most welcome in other countries, when the burden of subsidising our fat-cats gets too much for them.   If we drive too many of them out, the economy is basically gone!

Villains and Scapegoats

I’m thinking of buying News of the World in the morning.  If I do, it’ll be the first time in my life, as well as the last.

Now that it’s closing down amid a veritable shitstorm (pardon my language) I keep hearing interesting things about it: a long history and some proud stories.  Apparently it has hitherto been Britain’s best-selling rag.  Yet I don’t even know what it looks like!  Although I must presumably have seen it in the shops, it’s never registered.  Is it so visually cluttered as to draw attention away from its identity?  Could it be because I never realised (until it became news) that the phrase News of the World was a name, rather than a slightly tongue-in-cheek claim or headline?  No matter: that’s neither here nor there.

But the circumstances of its closure are another story, and they’re far from the only villain.  Indeed, I’d go so far as to say not even the chief villain, but at least in part the scapegoat for a holy cow that can’t be touched.  It’s surrounded by villains: others in the press who didn’t get caught, police turning more than just a blind-eye, kowtowing politicians.  And hypocrites: readers who bought it and now revile it, and now prominently the Church of England huffing and puffing over its investment in News Corp.

For the benefit of international readers who may not know the story, the paper is in disgrace over phone-hacking.  Some other methods of collecting information have come into question, but that’s the key one.  That’s illegal, but historically we’ve turned a blind eye as investigative journalists have done work often in the public interest, and indeed pursued serious villains where police lack the will or the resources.  We’ve agonised over grey areas like celebrity tittle-tattle: there’s no defensible reason to intrude on the private life of an entertainer such as a footballer or pop-star, but that kind of thing evidently has a big audience.  What everyone agrees is utterly beyond the pale is intrusion on people in the news for reasons of personal misfortune, headed by the story of interfering with phone calls to Millie Dowler, a schoolgirl who had disappeared and (as subsequently emerged) been murdered.

Actually I wonder if that’s really so indefensible?  The ideal outcome for the paper would’ve been a happy ending: girl found safe and reunited with her family.  Or failing that, crime solved and villain caught, as (eventually) happened.  Who’s to say the paper wasn’t in fact working hard to become the hero of that story by actually solving the case – surely a dream outcome for it?  If its efforts had triumphantly found her, we’d surely have forgiven the dubious means, and we could’ve felt good about buying the paper!

Just as we’ve turned a blind eye to methods deployed by the Telegraph to unearth information on the parliamentary expenses racket.  Public interest!

But not having solved the case, the paper doesn’t have that defence.  And to make it all the more emotive, the Dowler case was recently in the news for other reasons: her murderer[1] was recently convicted, and her family went through a horrendous ordeal in the legal process.  But that was inevitable: our legal system ensures that anyone who gets caught up in it will suffer: victim or villain, or third-party such as a witness.

Or indeed juror.  In another recent case, a juror was jailed for no more crime than being a bit of an idiot.  Truly chilling – and no more than the tip of an iceberg of abuse of jurors!  Of course, the judge in question and the others who run the whole sick game with peoples lives have judicial immunity, which means they’re quite literally above the law no matter how stupid or corrupt they may be.

Chancery may be history, but the spirit of Jarndyce and Jarndyce remains crushingly relevant today.  The Dowler family suffered two terrible ordeals: first, loss of the girl, and second the court case.  Surely some investigator phone-tapping is utterly trivial compared to either of those, yet it’s the paper, not the legal system, that’s in trouble!

What’s going to be the outcome of this case?  The legal system will remain untouched and damage to government is unlikely to escalate.  The police is getting what looks like a well-deserved kicking and heads may possibly even roll, but probably no substantial change.

The press is the main story: government is now setting up two enquiries, which are likely to lead to changes to the regime under which news organisations work.  Fortunately the present government is not such a natural enemy to free speech as its predecessor, so a severe curtailment throwing out the baby with the bathwater isn’t as inevitable as would’ve been the case under The Liar.  But I fear it will hurt the ability of investigative journalists to do good work.  Con-men and fraudsters everywhere will stand to benefit if investigators better resourced than the police have their hands tied.

The other interesting question: how much muck will now emerge concerning similarly-shady practices in other newspapers and media organisations?  They must now be sitting nervously on a huge Prisoner’s Dilemma.

[1] Unless of course an innocent man got convicted.

Iraq: a resounding success

I can’t find a link for it yet, but todays news on the radio is a very healthy profit at BAe, which is by far Britain’s biggest armaments company.  A successful bottom line to the long series of wars we’ve started since the end of the Cold War, avoiding the risk of such a vital part of the economy going into meltdown.

Todays other news is of course the first stage of cut-and-run.  That’s inevitable: so long as there’s a native population and an occupying force, there will be resistance.  Historically, a Final Solution to that problem hasn’t worked for a very long time.

Road pricing: the wrong debate

Today’s news: 1.8 million signatures on a petition against a road pricing proposal. A new, online e-petition.

OK, it’s easy to see how it reaches that number of signatures. It’s had massive publicity from the mainstream meeja (like the newspapers and BBC). It’s online, so it’s no effort to sign it. And not least, it’s wide open to being stuffed by automated bots posting bogus signatures.

And it’s a proposal with a lot to oppose in it:

    • The purpose is to provide incentives to avoid the busiest roads and times, to reduce congestion. That will inevitably leave far more of our nicer country lanes crawling with cars, and unpleasant for everyone.
    • It relies on a big government computer system, which inevitably implies a fiasco.
    • It relies on tracking technology fitted in vehicles. When the proposal comes from the present government, who can blame people for being suspicious about that? And we can surely expect the devices to be tampered with, probably on a large scale.
    • It’s presented as a new charge: pay more, get [???] back for it. Yeah, just what everyone wants.

      Besides that, some of the propagandists have been concocting altogether more outrageous scare stories.

      The second part of this story is a BBC survey, which suggests that people would be much happier to pay if the money were given back to them in some other form, or ringfenced for better transport.

      Right. So, just reintroduce John Major’s fuel price escalator, but this time tie it to a systematic equal reduction in tax elsewhere. Cost linked directly to pollution. No disastrous technology project. No unwelcome surveillence. And we can start right now!

      When I went on my first peace march, I had to overcome feelings of revulsion at being associated with a bunch of lefties, and a cause seen by some as one of theirs. I have yet to overcome my revulsion at the road lobby – which lacks even the left’s redeeming feature of a Good (if misguided) Cause. Otherwise I might’ve been tempted to sign this one myself.

      A timely shot

      China shoots down its own satellite (thus demonstrating its technological capability to do so). Others huff and puff about it.

      From a UK perspective, this looks timely. It comes within a week of our megalomaniac warmongering liar of a prime minister’s latest speech about the virtues of war everywhere (a speech that finally led me to the frightening conclusion that the best thing our army could do for us right now is to execute a coup against him). It’s comforting that there is another power that neither The Liar nor his Master can expect to bully or bomb into submission. Especially when there’s no reason to suppose that power threatens any legitimate british interest.

      Someone in Taiwan might legitimately feel different about this news. Time will tell the negative aspects of China’s rise, but this at least is positive in terms of the very necessary checks and balances it’s bringing to the world. And China is not (AFAICS) pursuing the kind of ideological imperialism that characterised both sides in the Cold War.

      Body Language is the Liar’s Friend?

      The Indy today reports previously-suppressed evidence that the Prime Minister/Government never believed its own lies about Iraq.

      That comes as no surprise to me. Throughout the lead in to the war, it seemed blatently obvious that Blair was lying. Just hearing his voice on the radio gave it away. So how come it wasn’t obvious to all those in the chattering classes who believed him, or at least gave him the benefit of the doubt?

      Here’s a theory. Blair’s body language tells an altogether different story. So anyone who saw him on the telly saw a convincing display of a man who truly believed what he was saying.

      This is courtroom technique in action. As a successful barrister, his job was always to convince an audience (jury) of a case. That would commonly involve a virtuoso display of distorting the truth out of all recognition. After all, a litigant who has truth on his side is unlikely to see any need for the hideous cost of a barrister, so his livelihood comes almost entirely from the dishonest.

      So that’ll be why those who live by deception insist on the importance of face-to-face contact, while those of us who can’t or won’t lie can envisage a better world.

      From the department of the bleedin’ obvious

      The Beeb’s department of the bleedin’ obvious reports that the “Millennium Development Goals” are being scuppered by population growth.

      Gosh, what a surprise. We’ve exported the culture of expending huge efforts on keeping every person alive, but done nothing to bring down the birth rate. So population grows to consume all available resources and then more. Solve starvation in the existing population, and more are born to take up the slack.

      In the UK and other developed countries, we have brought the birth rate down without excessive pain (though not without a lot of suffering and struggle: see for example Dickens). On the way there, we got away with growing the population way above what we can sustain by importing liberally from the natural resources of the third world. Nowadays, that includes oil and gas, manufactured goods, and a range of chemicals that artificially inflate the yield of our farmland and give the illusion of sufficient food – even a surplus. But it comes at a terrible cost to our land, air and water, and other species. And Africa doesn’t have the luxury of that option: there’s nowhere left to exploit.

      In the 1980s, Saint Geldof & co relieved famine. In doing so, they enabled a huge and unsustainable population growth, so subsequent famines grow ever bigger. We’re very largely still doing that. I was one who refused on principle to donate to Geldof’s campaign, pointing out that in the long term, he was only making the problem worse. We may be on the point of starting to try and do something about population growth (which is something I would contribute to, if someone persuaded me they were doing a decent job of it) but I expect I’ll spend the rest of my life muttering told you so.

      Political Correctness?

      Yesterday’s news: scientists want to create embryos mixing human and cow.

      So why aren’t the mother-in-law jokes flying?

      Today’s headline: Saddam Hussein sentenced to death.  And it could scarcely have happened to a more deserving person.  Good riddance.

      But you can’t just sentence someone for being a nasty man.  You have to convict them of a specific crime.  They convicted him for killing 148 people in Dujail, following an assassination attempt on him in 1982.

      Wait a minute!  An assassination attempt?  In today’s language, he foiled a terrorist outrage.  No, that’s not what I think, but its just as valid as the excuses used by today’s leaders, including those who deposed Saddam.  And an overreaction?  Indeed yes, but he’s not the only one to do that.  Not by a long way.

      And 1982?  That’s a long time ago.  But then, all Saddam’s worst atrocities happened in the 1980s, when the West was actively backing him in his attack on revolutionary Iran.

      And … what an interesting coincidence with U.S. elections.