Archive for the ‘banter’ Category

Thinking about the political castration of Ken Clarke and the fact that not even the Treasury in its most R.G. Hawtrey-esque mood seems to be able to stop the expansion of the prison industry, it struck me that the political class’s attitude towards the public service known as justice is fundamentally different to its attitude to all the others, including defence and policing.

Since the mid-1980s and the rise of the New Public Management – possibly an even more pernicious intellectual phenomenon than New Classical economics – it’s been a universal establishment consensus, shared by all parties, that any public service can be improved by giving bits of it a pseudo-budget to spend in a pseudo-market. Playing at shops is the defining pattern language of post-80s public administration. (This chap wrote at the time that the whole thing was remarkably like the 1960s Kosygin reforms in the Soviet Union, and perhaps we can induce him to post it up on his blog!)

For example, the 1990s Tory government wanted “fundholder” GPs to buy hospital services in an NHS internal market. Now they want to do something similar again, but more, faster, and worse. All sorts of local government services were put through a similar process. Central government agencies were ordered to bill each other for services vital to their operations. The Ministry of Defence was ordered to pay the Treasury 6% a year of the value of all its capital assets, such as the Army’s tank park, reserve stocks of ammunition, uniforms, etc. As a result, the MOD sold as many vehicles as possible and had to buy them back expensively through Urgent Operational Requirements when they had to fight a war. Supposedly, some vehicles were sold off after Kosovo, re-bought for Afghanistan in 2001, sold again, re-bought for Iraq in 2003, sold again, and UORd in a panic in 2006.

(Off topic, if you’re either a reporter hunting a story or a dealer in secondhand military vehicles, watch closely what happens to the fleet acquired under UORs for Afghanistan in the next few months.)

But there is one public service where the internal market is unknown. I refer, of course, to criminal justice. For some reason, it is considered to be normal to let magistrates and judges dispense incarceration, one of the most expensive products of the state, as if it were as free as air. The Ministry of Justice is simply asked to predict-and-provide sufficient prisons, like the Department for Transport used to do with motorways. Like motorways, somehow, however hard the bulldozers and cranes are driven, it never seems to be enough, and the prison system operates in a state of permanent overcrowding. Interestingly, the overcrowding seems to prevent the rehabilitative services from working, thus contributing to the re-offending rate, and ensuring both the expansion of the prison industry and the maintenance of permanent overcrowding.

The new public managers bitch endlessly about “producer interests” – they mean minimum-wage hospital cleaners, but somehow never GPs – but you never hear a peep about our bloated and wasteful criminal justice system. In fact, now that we have private jails, this producer interest is vastly more powerful as it has access to the corporate lobbying system and a profit motive.

Clearly, the problem here is that the gatekeepers to the system – the courts – have no incentive to use taxpayers’ money wisely, as they face neither a budget constraint nor competition. There is a rhyme with the fact that a British Army company commander in Afghanistan has a budget for reconstruction of $4,000 a month, which he must account for meticulously to the Civil Secretariat to the Helmand Task Force, but in each section of ten riflemen under his command, at least one of them can spend $100,000 on destruction at any moment, by firing off a Javelin anti-tank missile, every time he goes outside the wire. As once the thing is fired, he no longer needs to tote the fucker any further, you can see that a lot more is spent on Javelin rounds than reconstruction, and indeed the task force was getting through 254 of them a month at one point.

But it’s not a precise match. The military do, indeed, have to worry about their resources, as do the police. Only the courts can dispense public money without limit.

What if we were to give every magistrates’ court a Single Offender Management Budget, out of which it could buy imprisonment, probation, community service, electronic tagging, etc in an internal market? This would make it obvious to the magistrate how much cheaper non-custodial interventions are than jail. It would force them to resist the temptation to jail everybody out of risk-aversion or political pressure. If a court was to start off the year handing down 16-month sentences for stealing a packet of fags, and end up in queer street by Christmas, well, that will teach them to waste taxpayers’ money.

In fact, we could go further. Foundation courts would be able to borrow, if necessary, to tide themselves over to the end of the year, although of course they would have to make efficiency gains next year to repay it. It would be possible for a foundation court to go bankrupt and close. This, of course, will drive up standards. Perhaps we could even introduce an element of choice, letting defendants choose which jurisdiction they are prosecuted in.

I am, of course, joking. But not entirely.

China’s neo-con blogging fever-swamp, via (of course) Jamie K.

For instance, Gao Yi, a well-known music critic, tweeted: “Compared with a war, US$7 billion is much more worthwhile. Right now, we lack the off-shore staging capacity for a mid-intensity war.

A well-known music critic? Now that’s special. You don’t get detailed comment on the Royal Fleet Auxiliary’s seabasing capability from Martin Kettle when he’s in one of his SUCK ON MY CULTURE, PROLE moods, or indeed when he’s editorialising, do you? Does Brian Sewell take a view on whether the much delayed Maritime Afloat Replenishment Ship project should go down the Dutch/Canadian JSS route, perhaps building on licence from Schelde in the UK, or stick with specialised tanker and dry-replenishment hulls?

It’s a pity that this doesn’t mean their politics is any more pacific.

Is tragic diva SNLI cracking up, ask friends? “Creepy obsession” with blogger raises old rumours about starlet; Max Clifford is holding on line one.

“He’s very good with colours”, says Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security. “Everyone around here relies on him for style tips before their TV appearances. I’d never have thought of giving my shemagh a light spritz of Crazed Wingnut before going on Rachel Maddow, but it made my performance…”

(In the future, trolls will be considered a strategic resource like oil.)

I liked this (via):

Although technically speaking releasing testosterone precursors on the world’s trading floors to try to rally valuations wasn’t criminal as such, the affected traders lobbied to declare it illegal. But governments liked the idea too much, and oxygen masks were forbidden.

(Electronic traders were of course immune, but they knew floor traders would be bullish and that was enough for them to become so, too. Soon there was no need to spend on the chemicals anymore.)

I think it was at last 3GSM I suddenly thought of the possibility of someone inventing a sales drug – a pill that would fill you with energy and induce repetitive behaviour (always be closing, right?), whilst at the same time making you hypersensitive to others’ emotions…but completely indifferent to them, and also completely incurious about what you were doing. The street, or the Street, would probably call it Animal Spirit.

And then I jumped under a tram. No. In fact I thought someone should write the book before someone actually invented it, with whatever nightmarish meat-hook consequences that would have. Then I forgot all about it at wheels-up, until now, when the approach of the next 3GSM brought it slithering to mind.

The Grauniad asked 21 of its opinion writers to make predictions for 2009. As a service, and to force Daniel Davies’ hand into starting his planned Predictions-L mailing list, I’ve shorterised each one and reflected briefly on it. The full texts are here.

1) Jackie Ashley thinks the Lib Dems may be powerbrokers in a hung parliament.

Comment: not so much a prediction as a statement that the polls currently look like that. But at least it’s based on data.

2) Michael Tomasky thinks e-books will be a major hit, but nobody wants to read 80,000 words cos of wikipedia and google an stuff.

Comment: This is one of those issues that kills forecasters. The dawn of e-books has been repeatedly predicted and repredicted without happening. Tomasky makes the good point that the Amazon Kindle is selling well…but then his New Yorker/smartass kulturpessimismus conwis kicks in and he ends up predicting that e-books will sell hugely but nobody will buy them. Quack, quack, oops.

3) Gary Younge thinks industrial relations in the US will be troubled as the recession takes hold.

Comment: Fair enough.

4) Oh Jesus, here we go. Madeleine Bunting thinks the recession will teach us all a lesson about the Virtues of Thrift.

Comment: Mr Keynes, call your office. More specifically, this is so woolly that it’s impossible to think of criteria that would let us determine the success or failure of the prediction. In fact, she explictly backs out of it by suggesting there will be a “confusion of values”. Yellow.

5) Peter Preston thinks we will see better satire on TV, and a UK network will recruit John Oliver from the Daily Show.

Comment: Is/Ought confusion – not clear whether Preston thinks this *will* happen or whether he’s hoping to encourage it. Hard to define “better”, but if better satire on TV does happen there will probably be a degree of consensus that it has happened.

6) George Monbiot thinks some mate of his will have a big success with this fillum they made.

Comment: Well, it’ll be either a hit or a turkey. Nobody knows anything (and the kid stays in the picture). It’s a prediction, even if the film about climate change is characterised by “a Nigerian fisherwoman who has to wash her catch with Omo”; climate change does not cause oil spills, nor vice versa. Not in Nigeria, at least. I know about that pipeline in Alaska.

7) Polly Toynbee thinks environmental issues will lose salience unless there’s a major disaster.

Comment: There’s a bit of hedge in how you define “the agenda” here, but it’s fair enough. And she’s based it on data. Tim Worstall probably already has accused her of hoping for the flooding of New York City, and is now probably guiltily masturbating over her byline photo. And that’s a prediction!

8 ) Jonathan Freedland thinks there could be a hung parliament, and a Lib-Lab coalition, or maybe a Lib-Con coalition. Or it might not happen.

Comment: Coward – three mutually exclusive predictions in one.

9) Simon Jenkins thinks genetic and embryological research will conquer disease. Seriously.

Comment: I am not joking. Perhaps a drop too much of the Old Tory’s Arse 76-year old malt this Christmas. But we could treat this as a forecast that there will be at least one major medical achievement in this line in 2009, and that way it is fair enough.

10) John Harris thinks there will or should be a national debate that’s something to do with sub-post offices.

Comment: Jesus wept, what a bunch of wank. I remember when he was good; he was especially good mocking the Big Conversation, strange to relate. This sounds like his balls just dropped off. Absolutely no testable claims. FAIL.

11) Jonathan Steele thinks Russian influence will increase in Georgia and the Ukraine. And there will probably be a change of government in Thailand, but it won’t matter.

Comment: I was tempted to say Jonathan Steele thinks…whatever the Russians tell him to. Note that back in 2004 he thought the Ukrainian revolution was an evil fascist plot because Yulia Timoshenko made a pile in the gas business. Now she’s “a figure to watch in 2009, a controversial and vastly rich entrepreneur who takes a more respectful line towards Moscow”. Prediction: Steele will continue to follow the Party line and will continue to be invited on all-expenses trips to Moscow (indispensable pdf). And he’s hedging about Thailand like Capability Brown with a Black & Decker and a liberal dose of amphetamine sulphate. However, at least he made a testable prediction.

12) Jenni Russell thinks there may be something wrong with race relations in South Africa.

Comment: No shit, Sherlock.

13) Hugh Muir thinks various European politicians will do something or maybe not, and some UKIP MEPs may be re-elected. Or then again they may not. Who knows?

Comment: Hugh Muir may make a testable prediction he could be held responsible for. Or perhaps he won’t.

14) Tim Garton Ash thinks there will be a youth protest wave, driven by graduate unemployment.

Comment: A testable, nonobvious prediction based on a quantitative model. Score one for Agent Romeo.

15) Julian Glover thinks “the age of depoliticised power will come to an end”.

Comment: I think he means things like independent central banks. It’s not at all clear though. Still, chalk it up; if the ECB gives up monetarism by December, he’s right.

16) Libby Brooks thinks “the gardener who knows how to grow their own carrots” will be valued more than a hedge fund manager, and the success of Mamma Mia! is an example of a profound change in our views of status.

Comment: I think there is more than a little contradiction here, and not just because nobody ever liked hedgies anyway. Again, vague puffology about abstract nouns.

17) Seamus Milne thinks the “the neoliberal model is collapsing around our ears, but what is going to replace it is still up for grabs”.

Comment: Not a prediction, and unfalsifiable. If you read on, it turns out the old tankie really means “maybe this crisis is the one! world revolution is here!” but he’s wily enough to realise everyone will laugh if he says that.

18) Mark Lawson thinks William Golding’s books will come back into fashion.

Comment: God, I hope not. But at least it’s a prediction.

19) Scraping the barrel. Zoe Williams thinks that the idea of prime-time TV is obsolete, and that TV will be dominated by crowd-pleasing repeats.

Comment: Slightly contradictory. And whingeing about repeats? Radical.

20) Martin Kettle, for it is he, thinks the extreme Right in Europe will win more seats at the European Parliamentary elections. He doesn’t think this means a third world war is imminent, but he does not have “high confidence” of this.

Comment: Kettle, Kettle. The boy’s so prone, Ron. Trust him to make a fool of himself. I would think anything less than very high confidence that the radical right will not start a world war from Europe would be front-page news, but he actually buries this behind the shattering suggestion that the BNP might pick up an MEP or two.

Of course, that’s actually quite unlikely because the method of election favours parties with a small but widespread support base like the Greens, rather than ones with sporadic, concentrated support like the BNP.

21) Marina Hyde thinks the Russian state will continue to take control over more of the Russian economy, but will re-privatise in the future, only to re-expropriate a new set of temporary oligarchs when the next crisis arrives. And the Government will fail to get newly state-owned bank branches to open on Saturday mornings.

Comment: That’s actually a very good point. Two very good points, in fact. We have a winner!

Ajay takes the cake again. Back in 2007, discussing the Piccadilly bomb plot, he made the important point that the difficult bit in arranging a fuel-air explosion is getting your timing right. You don’t want to let the fuel disperse too much, but if you fire it too early there will be too much fuel and not enough air for combustion. So, here we are, from this week’s trial.

But the would-be bombers had made a crucial error. The detonators consisted of two mobile phones wired to a light bulb surrounded by match heads. A phone call was supposed to trigger the homemade device igniting the vapours swirling inside the cars. But the mixture of petrol and gas was too thick – police sources say that if the car windows had been opened the bombs could have gone off – but as it was there was not enough oxygen to trigger the devices.

Get a blog, already.

It seems that Andrew Gilligan has been stung by the phrase “Bendy Jihad”. So much so that he has devoted a whole column to moaning about it, or rather to moaning about anyone having the cheek to disagree with him. It’s a pity, then, that he couldn’t see his way to attributing his attack correctly, quoting accurately, or refraining from beauties like these:

There’s a certain mad nobility in the way Boris’s opponents seem determined to strap themselves to the most unpopular causes going. You wonder what’s next a support group for double-glazing salesmen? A bid to rehabilitate that misunderstood feminist icon, demonised by the Right-wing media, Rose West?

Do stay classy, Andrew. Anyway, to get to the point: Tom Barry is not responsible for the phrase “Bendy Jihad”; it was me. I invented the phrase to express the bizarrely gratuitous nature of the campaign against these peaceable giants of the urban savannahs; is it really a top priority, after all, to replace some brand-new buses with other brand-new buses which have had some glassfibre curlicues added?

And it is gratuitous. We know now that they do not kill cyclists. Not one authenticated case of a Bendy attacking cyclists has been provided. No evidence for any of the other horrors they supposedly inflict on the public has been adduced whatsoever. But rather as so many Conservatives are indiscriminately in favour of killing small animals, the Bendy Jihad rolls on, despite the fact that the contracts between Transport for London and the bus operators mean that come what way, 50 bendies will still be in operation at the next mayoral election, despite the fact that some of the routes involved are impassable to double-deckers because they go through the Strand underpass, despite the fact Boris Johnson forgot all about paying for the extra drivers and conductors required for 24-hour operation…clearly, the role of the Bendy Jihad is not instrumental, but symbolic. Rather than fighting for a secular triumph in which the Caliphate of a better transport system is actually achieved, the Bendy Jihadis hope to prove themselves worthy of their place in paradise (also known as the House of Commons) by their sacrifice.

However, their religion is actually considerably less advanced than Islam in anthropological terms. Rather than propitiating god by good works or asceticism, they are still at the stage of making sacrificial offerings of dead animals; in this case, these savages intend to stage a mass cull of defenceless bendies. Perhaps they will build a giant pyre and dance round it, or burn Peter Hendy in a wicker man atop City Hall. It’s potlatch politics; they’re doing it purely because they can. Politically, it’s an appeal to the primitive instincts; watch us smash their big, long, red totem!

I suspect the authors of the Bendy Jihad are well aware of this; it’s hard to remember this now, but it wasn’t that long ago that the main strategic problem facing the Conservative Party was how to win an election in a climate of prosperous housing-boom contentment, without risking any of their core ideological substance. The answer, of course, is to pick an aesthetic and push it as far as you can.

Now, Gilligan claims that “one tireless Johnson-basher, Tom Barry, explains how the Mayor’s opposition to bendy buses is actually part of a sinister, global neo-conservative conspiracy”. Unfortunately, he’s got this the wrong way round. The opposition to bendy buses is actually a conspiracy which consists of sinister global neo-conservatives.

For example, we have Policy Exchange’s founder Michael Gove, shadow Schools Secretary. Mr. Gove is on record as recommending the pseudonymous “Bat Ye’or”‘s book Eurabia, in which you can learn that the European Union is secretly controlled by Arabs. (There are pills you can take for that, I think.) We have its recent director Anthony Browne, the toast of US extreme-rightist group VDARE, who apparently thinks we are “on the edge of anarchy” because of the not-ricin not-plot, now Boris Johnson’s policy chief. We have the truly odd figure of Policy Exchange research director Dean Godson – advocate of “political warfare”, former special assistant to John Lehman as Secretary of the Navy (that’s the US Navy, and he’s now the head of John McCain’s transition team), and shaky-on-facts thinktanker. Why am I bothering with this obscure thinktank?

Because, of course, not only did Boris Johnson staff up from it, but it published a paper back in 2005 which specifically proposed the Bendy Jihad in the following terms:

One of the remarkable things about the debate over the Routemaster – London’s much loved hop-on, hop-off double deckers complete with conductor – is that it is about much more than just a bus. It is highly revealing about so many aspects of public policy in Britain today. The first is the rising tide of the group rights agenda (or at least a particularly extreme interpretation of it) which has overwhelmed key public utilities and those who do business with them.

That’s Godson. “The group rights agenda”, no less. Here’s some more:

The Routemaster’s crime, in short, is not that it is ineffective; it is that it is unfashionable. It does not fit with the modern, sleek, concrete-and-glass Euro-city that Mr Livingstone wants to create; never mind that this city exists only inside the Mayor’s head.

It’s always the EU in the end with these people, isn’t it? You’d think that Andrew Gilligan might have been aware of this document’s essentially partisan and political nature; after all, he wrote that last bit and Godson edited it.

What a bunch, and how bizarre that they all share a deep interest in buses despite having never been at all interested in transport policy before. I suppose their nonsense is explicable by the Dunning-Kruger effect – the principle, experimentally demonstrated, that incompetent people are not only unaware of their incompetence but convinced that others are even more incompetent than they.

Anyway, this is all very interesting, but it’s just a pity that Tom Barry didn’t actually say it, just like he didn’t invent the Bendy Jihad. The two halves of the quote, each side of the oh-so-convenient ellipsis, come from two distinct pieces of writing, welded together like the halves of a dodgy secondhand car and with much the same purpose. Tom Barry says in the first one that there is a curious overlap between the Bendy Jihad and a neo-conservative worldview, quoting me. I think we’ve amply demonstrated that. He says in the second that the Boris Johnson campaign was motivated by Tory hatred of Ken Livingstone for cosying-up to the “new economic superpowers”. That’s an opinion, on a whole range of stuff that has bugger-all to do with bendies.

Comment is free, facts are sacred. Remember? Much more of this and I might conclude Alistair Campbell was right. Which would be a considerable stretch for me. But then, they say you should never meet your heroes. Especially not when they get caught sockpuppeting.

I grinned at this comment at the Stiftung:

“Joan Walsh, are you telling me, really telling me here, now, on TV, that because Charlie Black worked with this Savimbi guy, this so-called Reagan ‘freedom fighter’ in Africa who is alleged to have been a cannibal, are you really telling me that this means Team McCain eats people???? Are you making that allegation here tonite ?! I am asking you directly. That Team McCain are cannibals. Is this guilt by association? Yes or no !!”

Joan Walsh: “Chris, no one wants to do that. Not at all. We are just saying that this relationship between Savimbi and the McCain campaign needs to be investigated. We need all the facts. What exactly was the relationship with this notorious Savimbi character. There is a lot there that should concern the American people. We need to know it all so the American people can decide.”

Well, ha ha. But then it happened. Via Making Light, this brainblitzing turdspurt:

Bree Keyton told the tribal “Christians” you are NOT Christian if you practice “tribalism” where they do voodoo to conjure up a goddess spirit or a “genie” and then come to church on Sunday to worship Jesus! What she discovered there is apparent in most churches around the world; namely, mixture in the church. Some renounced their devilish practices of blood covenant by killing sheep, goats, humans to be inducted into the tribe or to get a wife or to get revenge.

She said the current president of Kenya is a Christian. However, Obama’s cousin Odinga ran aganist him and said he rigged the election and stirred up the masses to rape woman and boys, kill and burn and torture Christians, etc. until Obama contacted Condeleeza Rice and she granted Obama the right to contact Odinga and other ruling elders and he “convinced” them to stop terrorizing the Christians. Bree Keyton said the current Christian President was forced by our government (!) to “create” an office for Odinga (to make “peace”) so he was made the Prime Minister (!) to make peace between the Christians and Odinga’s Muslim religion!

Long pig; it’s this year’s Ibogaine. Relatedly, I was just reading back over some of the Pierre Falcone posts, and it struck me that McCain’s public image has come a long way since I blithely remarked that Falcone had been a fool to offer him money. True, I was thinking of relative rather than absolute integrity – I said Falcone should have offered Tom DeLay the cash, and got a far better deal in terms of value for his bribe dollar.

Perhaps McCain should try a different West African warlord; Charles Taylor knew a good campaign slogan when he saw one. He could help him mend fences with the crucial evangelical vote, thanks to his links to Pat Robertson. And eating UN personnel would probably go down well with the base.

Whilst we’re at it; watch Tim Worstall claim that the banks don’t have any mortgage-backed securities on their books. Indeed, Tim, if you were right there would be no reason to nationalise them; but then, we wouldn’t be in this mess. As Molotov said to Ribbentrop, so if the British are finished, why are we in this bunker and whose are those planes?

It’s always a laugh waiting for the talking points caches to sync with the authoritative nonsense server.