Archive for November, 2008


Conrad Black: it has come to this. It’s been an intermittent amusement to see his rants issued from jail, what with their deluded certainty that the courts would eventually understand him. Now, however, he’s given up on vindication to beg for mercy. In a signature move, he’s also tried to bill his old newspaper for legal costs incurred in begging Bush for a pardon.

I think this points up the horror of the times in two ways. For a start, the very idea of pardoning Black is sordid. But on the other hand, I suspect Bush won’t do it, and that is even worse; he doesn’t, I think, have enough gut decency to bail out his friend. You can understand a man who does the E.M. Forster and betrays his country rather than his friends, you can grudgingly respect someone who sticks to the law; someone who does neither is a common enemy.

Anyway, it’s scrambling time; the handover modalities are set, and apparently the Iraqi government is asserting a right to look at the US Army’s mail. And the staff college students are studying the problems of withdrawal. Even if this guy’s still being asked for five pick-up trucks, a VSAT, coffee, and 10 tons of gravel, it’s over.

I wonder if Conrad Black, however, might be the first out having been the first in. Not only did he turn his newspapers into an all-singing, all-dancing neocon wankapalooza, he did it early; arguably, the turn came not long after Max Hastings was outed from the Telegraph, and perhaps the whole affair of William Hague’s assurances about his peerage should have told us more than it did at the time. And the Jerusalem Post was barely coherent in 2001, let alone later. Black was the first of the movement to be disgraced; he’s ahead of the curve. It’s probably worth watching him as a leading indicator.

OK, so about them Iranian superbomb spookologists. We’re not convinced. Even at the height of the nonsense, a lot of the military in Iraq were regularly quoted pouring cold water on the tale. Later, we looked into just how hard it would be to find out how to make an EFP. (All you need is Wikipedia, a search engine, and love. Or hate.)

Further, we were able to identify the stuff in the official photos as ball bearings made in India and trivially available in commerce. So, what about them Iranian superbombs? Not so much. IPS wire service has a fine story following the matter up. Their source is the US Army’s intelligence operation set up to analyse the sources of arms used by the Sadrists.

The task force database identified 98 caches over the five-month period with at least one Iranian weapon, excluding caches believed to have been hidden prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion.

But according to an e-mail from the MNFI press desk this week, the task force found and analysed a total of roughly 4,600 weapons caches during that same period. The caches that included Iranian weapons thus represented just 2 percent of all caches found. That means Iranian-made weapons were a fraction of one percent of the total weapons found in Shi’a militia caches during that period.

The extremely small proportion of Iranian arms in Shi’a militia weapons caches further suggests that Shi’a militia fighters in Iraq had been getting weapons from local and international arms markets rather than from an official Iranian-sponsored smuggling network….

There’s more.

In late April, the U.S. presented the Maliki government with a document that apparently listed various Iranian arms found in Iraq and highlighted alleged Iranian arms found in Basra. But the U.S. campaign to convince Iraqi officials collapsed when Task Force Troy analysed a series of large weapons caches uncovered in Basra and Karbala in April and May.

Caches of arms found in Karbala late last April and May totaled more than 2,500 weapons, and caches in Basra included at least 3,700 weapons, according to official MNFI statements. That brought the total number of weapons found in those former Mahdi Army strongholds to more than 6,200 weapons. But the task force found that none of those weapons were Iranian-made….

None. Zero.

Only two months before the new high-level propaganda push on alleged Iranian weapons supply to Shi’a militias, the U.S. command had put out a story suggesting that large numbers of Iranian-supplied arms had been buried all over the country. On Feb. 17, 2008, U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told reporters that Iraqi and coalition forces had captured 212 weapons caches across Iraq over the previous week “with growing links to the Iranian-backed special groups”.

The Task Force Troy data for the week of Feb. 9-16 show, however, that the U.S. command had information on Iranian arms contradicting that propaganda line. According to the task force database, only five of those 212 caches contained any Iranian weapons that analysts believed might have been buried after the U.S. invasion. And the total number of confirmed Iranian-made weapons found in those five caches, according to the data, was eight, not including four Iranian-made hand grenades.

The idiocy of trying to lie to a government essentially based on Iranian-backed militiamen and their political mouthpieces about Iranian support to their own side should be obvious. And them bombs:

The task force database includes 350 armour-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) found in Iraqi weapons caches. However, the database does not identify any of the EFPs as Iranian weapons. That treatment of EFPs in the caches appears to contradict claims by U.S. officials throughout 2007 and much of 2008 that EFPs were being smuggled into Iraq by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The allegedly Iranian-manufactured EFPs had been the centrepiece of the U.S. military’s February 2007 briefing charging Iran with arming Shi’a militiamen in Iraq.

Press reports of a series of discoveries of shops for manufacturing EFPs in Iraq in 2007 forced the U.S. command to admit that the capacity to manufacture EFPs was not limited to Iran. By the second half of 2008, U.S. officials had stopped referring to Iranian supply of EFPs altogether.

MACHIAVELLIAN PROPAGANDA; YR DOIN IT RONG. And finally, there’s the “and finally…” moment.

The co-authors note that Iranian arms can be purchased directly from the website of the Defence Industries of Iran with a credit card.

You wonder how many of the toxic HELOC-backed credit card bills were actually run up getting deliveries of IDI explosives. Ram it to Washington Mutual and screw Chalabi, in one easy package. No wonder DHL was so keen to resume service to Iraq.

OK, so I’ve spent some time getting more data together on the correlates of BNP membership. I’ve created a table which contains the following metrics: population growth (%), change in population density (%), Gross Value Added (GVA) in 1991, 2006, change in GVA, % GVA growth, unemployment, long-term unemployment as a % of total unemployment, the shares of GDP accounted for by agriculture, industry, and services, total immigration between 1994 and 2002 per capita, total emigration per capita for the same period, total migration per capita, and BNP members per 100 citizens.

And you know what? I was expecting to find a correlation with the economic variables. I had a theory that long-term, Thatcher legacy unemployment, especially, would be a strong correlate of BNP recruitment. But nothing correlates. None of those metrics have any predictive effect. Have a look at this.

Bb5fd48a-b898-11dd-941e-000255111976 Blog_this_caption

This strongly suggests that some completely different force is at work; perhaps BNP membership is driven by something else entirely. It could be the distribution of social authoritarian tendencies in the population, as Robert Altemeyer theorises. Or alternatively, it could just be that a gratifyingly small percentage of people are completely fucking stupid and pig-ignorant, that this is normally distributed in the population, and it’s essentially a matter of chance what pig-ignorant fucking stupidity they get up to.

It’s probably worthwhile pointing out that the average concentration of BNP members is 0.0203 per 100 citizens and the standard deviation is 0.0116. So with the sole exception of Northern Ireland, 1.54 standard deviations below the mean and therefore staggering towards the edge of the 90% confidence interval, the variation between regions is entirely explicable by chance.

(For some reason, this post has started to remind me of Donald Crowhurst‘s campaign leaflet, which bore the headline “YOU MAY THINK YOU ARE LOGICAL – BUT DARE YOU TAKE THIS TEST?” Inside was a sort of flowchart designed to explain logically why everyone should vote Liberal.)

You will hear all kinds of people in authority say that immigration, or population growth, is causing people to turn into racists and vote BNP, either just because (the rightwing version) or because of “pressure” on public services (the Decent Left version).Therefore, they usually say, we need a stingier immigration policy. If you’re reading this, you probably think this is crap. But now, I can prove this scientifically. Thanks to the leaked BNP membership list, we can empirically measure how many people are active racists, active and committed enough that they joined a political party and paid a subscription. Using the data by county, I established a table that matched the UK regions.

Now, if immigration or population growth really is causing people to go fascist, we’d expect to find a correlation between population growth and BNP membership. Or, perhaps, we might find that places that are losing population are economically depressed and hence susceptible. A further detail might be changes in population density; becoming more urban might lead to a perception of being “swamped”, or becoming more rural/exurban might lead to one of isolation. So I drew up a table of population growth from 1991 to 2006, change in density for the same period, and BNP members per 100 citizens.

Here are the results.

Cb712430-b737-11dd-bf3a-000255111976 Blog_this_caption

Population growth is on the Y axis, bigots on the X axis; the size of each dot represents the change in density. There is no correlation whatsoever. Anyone who tells you this story is talking nonsense.

Oh yes, gleeful leftie hacker tournament after the BNP did a 0.16 megarecord datafart. My effort contains absolutely no personally-identifying data; it’s made with this guy’s count by region and population data from National Statistics, to show the number of BNP activists per 100 citizens in each UK region. People kept asking for that kind of information, so I made it. Note that the g-spreadsheet guy used classifications that don’t quite map to NatStats’ regions, so I decided to assume that his “South Central England” was the West Midlands and “Midlands” was the East Midlands, and total Yorks & Humber and North-East to match his “North East England”.

Update: Well, in the end I used his numbers by county to create a table that matches the regions. Here’s a new and correct visualisation that shows Yorkshire where it should be, in the lead. Ernst Wilhelm Bohle lives!

8e8754ae-b737-11dd-bf3a-000255111976 Blog_this_caption

OK, so there’s this Il-76 with something called “East Wing” stuck a week in northeastern Brazil on its way from Dakar to Cochabamba in Bolivia. Not the busiest route, you might think.

But “East Wing” was formed as a successor to none other than GST Aero, sez; and out of their six aircraft, three are immediately ex-GST and another is none other than 23442218, the former ST-AQA of Phoenix Aviation and before that, GST. UP-I7622 has even more form. Serial number 3426765, she clocked up time at Air Cess, Air Pass, Centrafrican Airlines, and GST Aero – thus linking up the whole history of the Bout system, from the Swazi to the Central African to the Kazakh registry. Just to sign the lot, East Wing’s ICAO code is EWZ – Air West/East West’s was AWZ.

Further, Russia Today interviewed VB, and apparently the BBC broadcast something – anyone see it?

And this photo is a work of art. Jazz for the eyes, as someone said.

Update: Thanks to Matthieu in comments for this link to a New York Times story on Cochabamba, the place.

Cochabamba is on the western edge of the Chapare, the main coca-growing region in an otherwise impoverished country that is the world’s second largest producer of cocaine. Farmers and chemicals for processing cocaine stream out of Cochabamba into the Chapare jungle. Awesome wealth flows back. ”The cocaine is without doubt the thing that yields the most money to this area,” said Alfonso Canelas, a co-director with his father of Los Tiempos, Cochabamba’s leading daily newspaper.

Some of the major figures in the cocaine world have built mansions here and peasants have begun buying color television sets. The average Bolivian earns $500 annually. Some legitimate businessmen and some of the old families of Cochabamba say they resent the cocaine money. But the cocaine barons have nonetheless gained entry to the city’s elite social clubs.

People still talk about the gala wedding a few years ago of a daughter of Roberto Suarez, a powerful drug dealer who was the subject of a cameo appearance in the violent film ”Scarface” and who is now in jail. ”Almost everybody who counts was there,” said a woman at the center of Cochabamba society. ”People who didn’t get invited were really mad.”

Klaus Barbie, who was the Gestapo chief in Lyons, lived quietly in Cochabamba until shortly before he was deported in 1983 to France, where he was tried and sentenced to life in prison.

Klaus Barbie? Now that’s a detail that should be on the interwebs, the spiritual home of the lurid. Meanwhile, someone wants to know about Imtrec, in Russian.

Update Update: Look who’s reading the blog.

inetnum: –
netname: UK-VTL-AVIENT-LTD-00184232
descr: Avient Ltd
country: GB
admin-c: GH2118-RIPE
tech-c: VINO3-RIPE
mnt-by: VIATEL-MNT
source: RIPE # Filtered

And something called, which turns out to be a small ISP.

This is fascinating; Laura Rozen has details of the Italian inquiry into the Abu Omar rendition case. You know the one – when the CIA agents foolishly brought their own roaming mobile phones and spent a fortune staying in Bondesque hotels. The really interesting thing is that the inquiry is throwing up more and more cross-links with the Italian branch of the Niger uranium story.

It seems, if I understand the document correctly, that the same semi-official skunkworks inside Italian military intelligence that was responsible for the Abu Omar case was also the point of contact for the effort to gin-up the WMD story – and the various other weird things going on with Michael Ledeen, Larry Franklin and pals. And it was also the handler of a journalist who the SISMI used to a) smear various journalists, and b) blame the French for the forgery.

Here is a sample of this material; it’s no accident, surely, that it ended up on in September, 2004. That joint must have been thick with dark actors playing games back then. Note also that the smear campaigners tailored the material to its use very carefully. The entire thrust of it is intended to flip the story on its head – rather than the reality, in which people very close to the US and Italian governments conspired to fake the WMD story for their own ends, the fake explains how the French conspired with a secret Democratic Party group, Laura Rozen, Josh Marshall, and Kevin Drum(!) to fake the fake documents, in order to attack “3B – Bush, Blair and Berlusconi”. It’s hella Stiftung.

It’s also wonderfully wingnut, especially the bit in comments where some of them start arguing that Niger should be spelt properly, with two Gs, and others explain patiently that, no, it rhymes with “tiger”.

But what I want to know about this is…what was in it for the Italians?

Here’s one political movement struggling with the technological environment, at the Washington Monthly:

Frank Luntz, speaking at a panel discussion at the Republican Governors Association yesterday, noted Barack Obama’s enormous email list. “He’s got 10 million names and our candidate doesn’t know how to use this,” Luntz said, holding up a BlackBerry. “There is a problem there.”

Yes, and his running mate is so far behind, she thinks bloggers are pajama-clad basement-dwellers.

Here’s the real issue, though; the guy who’s hammering them for not knowing anything about the Internet’s best argument is that the other side have a huge pile of e-mail addresses. Luntz is thinking in terms of 1990s hard-right campaigning – blast-faxing, talk radio, direct mail, robocalls. We need to collect more e-mail addresses so we can spam them with talking points, beg for money, and push out plausibly deniable scare stories they can circulate. We’ll club them to death with our spam.

Here’s more, in an instant-classic post by Marc Lynch.

In short, Movement X adapted very quickly and effectively to the multichannel television revolution.. but its competitors have caught up, its advantage has diminished, and it is not likely to ever again enjoy the TV advantage it had in the past. Information overload, intense competition and fragmentation, and the increasingly aggressive counter-ideology campaigns all stand in the way.

What about internet forums? Such forums allowed X to circumvent editors by posting videos and statements directly to forums where all news producers could pick them up directly – and once anybody, however obscure, ran with it the others were sure to follow. Beyond that, though, they were not really useful for mass audiences, who were unlikely to find their way to the forums, whether or not they were password protected. Instead, they were ‘semi-public spheres’ where those already committed to the identity could download materials and engage in arguments about tactics and strategy and doctrine. The forums built group cohesion, boosting morale and strengthening identity – and offering recruiters a pool of potentials.

But forums also had problems. Their audience was limited to those already at the second or even third stage of mobilization. The doctrinal arguments on the forums tended to reward the most doctrinaire at the expense of the pragmatists, arguably driving X’s doctrine even farther from the mainstream. Sometimes, the debates could undermine morale or turn into open dissent, to the dismay of movement leaders.

You’ll probably have guessed by now that Movement X is actually Al-Qa’ida. I suppressed it in this post and made a couple of small changes so as to point up the astonishing similarities. You may also notice that the last paragraph is a case of the Daniel Davies theory of Internet counter-mobilisation. But I found this bit especially interesting:

This could potentially strengthen the ‘organization’ part… but at the expense of a greater distance from the pool of potential recruits who would not be sufficiently trusted to join. Overall it’s hard to see how AQ could adapt social networking without creating such vulnerabilities. Its rivals, on the other hand, have no such problems – Muslim Brotherhood youth are all over Facebook.

This is a special case of a general trend. Are we not seeing a structural shift away from the elite model of political organising – neoconservatives and Al-Qa’ida International, as opposed to its local franchises – towards something else we haven’t quite defined yet, like the Obama campaign, the European Union, and Hezbollah? In the first, it’s all about message discipline, ideological purity, and entryism. You seek inner purity in order to contaminate the others. In the second, it’s almost as if you’re aiming to be subverted yourself.

Did I say I like Touchstone?

But he ignores the fact that the European left did not soar in the polls within days of the Great Crash. It took a World War and 15 years – does Tony Barber really not know this, or does he not mind displaying faux ignorance so publically?

Mind you, at least his sin is only to appear ignorant. Gideon Rachman seems rather proud, for a journalist, of eschewing the real world for the claret-swilling elite in his fearless pursuit of the facts.

He stresses how vital it is to share vintage port over the cheese course with diplomats and politicians if you want to find out what’s really going on in the Middle East peace process and the Doha Development Round trade talks.

I’ve been to these country-house colloquia myself, and of course I love them to bits. I prefer Wilton Park to the Ditchley venue that Gideon cites, but that may be because last time I was at Ditchley I had to suffer the indignity of having my workshop report sung in the bar by Shadow Cabinet member David Willets to a piano accompaniment (the tune was “Waltzing Matilda”) by the then Director General of the OECD (I’m not making this up – how could you?)

But I do rather feel that I find out more about the Middle East from my Palestinian mate Fathi whose door got kicked down by Israeli goons who thought his son was a member of Hamas last time he went to a conference.

Now that’s thinktankery you can believe in. Policy Exchange? Pathetic. And who knew Two Brains was a concert-party star?

George Osborne is not getting any better. His latest shaft of brilliance is to threaten everyone with a sterling crisis – Chris Dillow has details and more. The problem here is that for a start, he is deliberately beating the water to drive sharks away from his vulnerable ideological underbelly. The Conservatives’ “economic plan” currently foresees a range of stupid and incoherent things – they are for tax cuts, specifically in employer National Insurance contributions, but the cuts are to be funded by spending cuts elsewhere, and savings in that eternal demagogue’s standby, “waste”.

So this isn’t a response to the economic crisis in any way; a basic Keynesian accounting – and before you all speak up, this particular one is basic to essentially everyone’s view of economics – shows us that aggregate demand equals (C+I+G+X)-(S+T) where C is consumption, I is investment, G is government spending, X is net exports, S is savings and T is taxation. If you reduce T, you obviously increase aggregate demand. But if you’re paying for this by reducing G, the net effect depends on the percentage of an increase in income that isn’t spent – the marginal propensity to save. The value in terms of aggregate demand of a tax cut is given by dT/(1/marginal propensity to save), known as the balanced budget multiplier. This can in fact be quite significant, for example if the tax change is highly progressive, so that the rich (who have a high marginal propensity to save) pay more and the poor (who don’t – they don’t have the spare cash) pay less.

Actually, even if the cut was to be paid for by borrowing, it still wouldn’t help very much. The Tories intend to only cut NI for those businesses who haven’t laid anyone off – which will be how many in a year’s time? Surely, if they are consistent conservatives, they should be encouraging companies to sack people so as to bring about a fall in prices and the realignment of demand with long term aggregate supply? After all, if they still reject Keynes, as Osborne seems to, this is what they presumably want.

Sometimes, the inchoate voice of the Internet-at-large tells you more than any amount of data: like this.

What a lot of people who should have known better forgot at the election was – HE’S A TORY.

Further, it is not any Conservative’s place to complain that the pound is in jeopardy. The UK has been running a structural current-account deficit for many years, and the vast growth of the financial services sector is a consequence and apparently a deliberate one. When an economy has a current account deficit, this means it imports more than it exports. In order to pay for this, it needs to run a corresponding surplus on the capital account – it needs to import capital. Down at the micro level, this means that banks are lending money to people who want to buy imports, that the savings of exporters are not enough to fund this, and therefore that the banks must borrow on the wholesale market (or issue shares to overseas investors, etc).

A further important factor is the role of the housing economy; if house prices grow faster than GDP, which in the UK they always do during the boom phases, this means that the new mortgage lending cannot be funded from the repayments on the old, and that housing must import capital from the rest of the economy. And, as the rest of the economy has to import capital for its own needs, therefore the mortgage banks must use the world market for money.

As a further twist, the banks got very good at importing capital and then re-exporting it, taking a turn on the deal and therefore significantly contributing to the current account. Everyone who praised the growth of the City since 1986 implicitly supports this state of affairs. But all this is predicated on the import of capital, which implies a current account deficit and therefore a significant currency risk. (No wonder City Tories have no confidence in Osborne.) The Conservative Party, especially, has no right to complain about it whatsoever, having essentially invented this entire structural model, as Ross McKibbin explains in a now-seminal article.

But even this isn’t the worst. Consider Osborne’s actual remarks.

Mr Osborne suggests that Mr Brown “doesn’t care” how much he borrows. “His view is he probably won’t win the next election. The Tories can clear this mess up after I’ve gone. That is deeply irresponsible. It’s a scorched-earth policy, which I think the history books will write up as a total disaster and which the public will see through between now and the election.”

Osborne is being positively Straussian here, in attributing the worst of his own motives to others. And he’s got form for this. After all, in the event of a major sterling crisis, he would stand to gain impressively, although for the reasons I’ve given above it would do the country a power of bad. It would look catastrophic, and the J-curve effect means that the short-term effect of devaluation is deflationary – the recession would initially be worse. Further, the sectors most affected by this would be finance (obviously) and the import-heavy consumer economy.

The electoral, regional and class distribution of the impact would also be helpful for the Conservatives – the costs would fall disproportionately in South-Eastern marginals and on swing voter groups, whereas the benefits would arrive later, handily after a hypothetical Chancellor Osborne took office, and would be concentrated in the export economy, that is to say in the West Midlands, the North, and the new town techie belt. Or,just where the Tories worry that they need to build strength in the long term.

And if you want to know the sort of thing they actually think is good for us, under the exoteric surface, check out this beauty from Alan Duncan. Constrained by the existing law, Dunc can’t promise to get rid of your workplace rights, so instead he’s hoping to scare people off exerting them, by making anyone who loses an industrial tribunal case pay the employer’s costs. Now, that might well be appropriate in the majority of the civil law, but it’s wildly inappropriate for employment law because of the structural inequality of power involved. Arguably, the ancient legal principle of “equality of arms” can only be maintained in this field if you can’t be scared into silence by the risk of paying Sir Bufton Tufton QC’s bill.

Mind you, there are reasons to be cheerful. Osborne has just staked his career on a forex trade, only weeks after making an enemy of Nathan Rothschild. And even super-europhobe Tory funder Stanley Kalms is making noises about needing “more heavyweight, more grey hair on the front bench”; if that isn’t a reference to Kenneth Clarke I don’t know what is. Who else could it be? Heavyweight rules out Redwood, Franciscus Mediocritus and a bunch of others. Grey hair? Can’t be William Hague then..