Archive for the ‘conservatives’ Category

A really good fisk is almost like a remix; you should be thankful for the original chunk of hackwork for giving us the chance to do something interesting. Hence Matt Carr, who dons the positive-pressure mask and takes the scalpel, chops up Christopher Caldwell’s book, and demonstrates the throbbing worm guts to the eager students in the audience, before dropping the lot in liquid nitrogen for the permanent record.

Caldwell, of course, is the man who thought that Robert Kilroy-Silk was going to rule Europe, and who got the New York Times Magazine to publish a six-page hagiography of the silly fool. I tackled it at the time; he drooled over RKS’s desres mellow-crunchin’ country mansion whilst ranting at “the old country-house condescension”, among much else that was ridiculous. He could have said less about the tan and the ice blue eyes…

Now he’s written a whole book called Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, whose content seems to be much the same as Mark Steyn’s America Alone. He’s been described as “knowing his way around the banlieue”, having written some berserkly alarmist pieces back in the winter of 2005. Perhaps he talked to a cab driver…a cab driver who voted FN.

But enough. It’s not that surprising that he’s still a hard-right libertarian/Republican, after all that’s happened – it’s not an ideological position, it’s an identity. It’s slightly more interesting that the tactical disasters that have happened didn’t affect him in the least – in 2005, he went looking for a catastrophic mob crisis in Europe, and he was damn well going to find one. He’d already got the title, and probably the advance. And so, despite the failure of all his predictions, here we are with his Revolution.

What keeps him in business, then? My explanation is that he plays an important role among right-wing intellectuals in the US. Specifically, people who don’t want to read Mark Steyn or Michelle Malkin read him. Indeed, they read him in order to know, themselves, that they don’t read Mark Steyn. They are Caldwell-people, who imagine themselves in the columns of the Financial Times, not the willingly ignorant teabaggers. If they do read Mark Steyn, they only read him to know what the masses think. They say. W. H. Auden’s crack that we say Masses when we mean ourselves in our weaker moments is very much to the point.

To be brief, Christopher Caldwell is an example of a group of writers who cater to people who believe of other conservatives the things conservatives believe of the rest of humanity.

Now this is absolutely terrifying; the Tory policy on what to do with the NHS National Programme for IT is apparently to give everyone’s data to “Google or Microsoft”. And that appears to be it. This is deranged in several ways. First of all, MICROSOFT??!!! What the fuck are they THINKING? You know, the people whose crappy browser and crappier operating system gave us the current malware ecosystem. The people whose business model is to make it too technically and legally difficult to ever change your mind.

It is fashionable in some circles to moan about “freetards” and Wikipedia being a “cult”, but as Stafford Beer would say, the purpose of a system is what it does.

MS products have been triumphantly successful in a couple of things – inducing people to buy ever more aftermarket security products from other American proprietary software companies, scaring them off going to the competition by making all their file formats very slightly incompatible with everything else including other versions of their own products, and generally maintaining the public belief that computers are terribly mysterious and frightening and that they must expect the experience of using them to be painful and unpleasant. This belief is very useful if you want to sell products on “user friendliness” (i.e. pretty graphics) or if you want to sell things to them in general.

Similarly, the original MS business model was to give away the software-development kits in order to attract as many developers as possible to make applications for DOS or Windows, which would attract people to buy the operating system they ran on. Unfortunately, since the mid-90s, they have been far more successful in fostering a shadow developer ecosystem, dedicated to exploiting the possibilities offered by the bugs rather as the official developers were dedicated to exploiting the possibilities offered by the APIs. I’m sure they didn’t consciously seek this…but see the Beer quote above.

Anyway, the purpose of the Google system is to sell advertising and they make absolutely no bones about that. This, of course, has consequences for the wider health system; the NHS is unlikely to be buying lots of ads to go next to your Google Health file. The people who do that are US drug companies, who are allowed to market direct-to-consumer with well-known and mostly terrible effects on the nation’s health. Why would a political party led by a former commercial TV executive, whose head of fundraising is the owner of an advertising agency, perhaps be interested in this? Anyone? Have the Midlands Industrial Council already banked the cheque?

But what really horrifies me about this arse-awful Sunday for Monday job is that it shows clearly that the Tories involved simply haven’t read the brief, or aren’t capable of doing so. Microsoft and Google’s embryonic health products consist of a single sign on and Web user interface for individual medical records. That’s it. But NPfIT is gigantically more complicated than that. It includes a medical record system. It also includes Choose and Book. It also includes a comprehensive workflow system for the entire NHS; to be clear, the biggest and most complex enterprise workflow installation in the world.

Google does not stock and does not sell anything like that; MS doesn’t do that much of it either. If they had said IBM, SAP, or BT Global Services I’d have been slightly less horrified; it would have shown that they were not particularly interesting or innovative (conservative, indeed), but had at least done a minimum of reading. And they don’t appear to be aware that the medical records (the Spine) are one of only two services in the project that have actually gone live.

But then, I suppose, if the records hadn’t already been filed in BTGS’ data centres, it would have been a sight harder to think about privatising them. The purpose of a system, etc.

It’s often the least well thought out eye-catching initiatives that say the most about the thought processes that underly them. Is it possible that quick-fire press releases are where the political system dreams?

(Meanwhile, the Thunderer comments thread is actually surprisingly sensible.)

OK, so I got no takers for this prediction.

My money’s on the Latvian or the Hungarian to out himself as a buffoon or neo-nazi.

Not surprising, really. But what I didn’t expect was that even though the Latvian turned out to be the neo-nazi, the buffoon would turn out to be Timothy Kirkhope MEP, the Tory leader in the European Parliament, who I had always assumed to be an uninspiring but roughly acceptable placeman. But it looks like the Borat Party’s Borat is actually its leader. However:

He and the Latvian LNNK denied that it was in any way sympathetic to Nazism. “There was a commemoration of those who had served in the Waffen divisions of the Wehrmacht in the Second World War. The Labour Party has been churning this thing out over and over again,” Mr Kirkhope said.

“The truth of the matter is that attendance of the commemoration service for those who have died in wars is not just by members of LNNK — it is by others attached to the EPP because the Baltic states were taken over and oppressed by the Russians and the situation was that the Germans conscripted a number of people to join the Waffen.”

“The Waffen divisions of the Wehrmacht”? What the fuck is that even supposed to mean? For a start, “Waffen” means “weapon or “armed”. Did the German army of the Second World War have any unarmed ones? Of course, it’s completely nonsensical as a unit designation. Kirkhope was presumably trying to skate around the phrase “Waffen-SS”, which refers to the SS’s field units as opposed to its “general purpose” administrative staff.

But even if we straighten out his mangled words, his argument is still ignorant and morally awful, as it rests on the long-discredited idea that all the atrocities of the Eastern Front were the work of the SS, and the regular German army obeyed the laws of war. Further, even if that wasn’t wrong, he would still be hopelessly ahistorical, because the various locally recruited units the Germans set up starting in 1942 were administratively attached to the Waffen SS, not the Army. The Army did recruit a lot of foreigners as individual replacements, but it didn’t create a foreign legion; the SS did.

And worst of all, the earliest Latvian SS were recruited from a vicious militia which emerged as the Russians pulled out in the early summer of 1941 and immediately started murdering the local Jewish population without even waiting for the Germans to show up. The degree of horror they achieved regularly sickened hardened soldiers and deeply impressed the SS Einsatzkommandos that followed the army; they lost no time in signing them up and using them all over Central and Eastern Europe to do the dirty work, including acting as the guard force at the extermination camps.

As if you needed any confirmation of this, the Times report has a useful photo of a Latvian remembrance day parade, complete with red-and-white flag, swastika, and Adolf Hitler’s likeness. A note for the guidance of readers, and Timothy Kirkhope MEP: if you need to know if your allies might be fascists, check if they like to wave flags with Hitler’s face on them. This is not an exclusive test, but the false-positive rate is essentially zero.

(Oh, and if anyone’s still interested in the bet, I’m taking the Belgian guy or at least his party to place.)

Resistance – The Essence of the Islamist Revolution is Alistair Crooke’s survey of modern Islamist thought. It would be clearer to say it is a couple of books occupying the same space; one would be a history of Islamist thought since the origins of the Iranian Revolution, with a polemic for greater understanding of such thought, and another would be a slightly eccentric, neo-Platonist rant with overtones of Ian Buruma’s notion of Occidentalism.

Well, that sounds fun, doesn’t it? Then you have to add in Crooke’s career; the book glosses him as an advisor to the European Commission on the Middle East, but makes absolutely no mention of his term as SIS station chief in Tel Aviv, in which role he negotiated a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which lasted until an unfortunate air raid resulted in the deaths of a round dozen civilians and not the Hamas man the Israelis were after. (The story is here.)

The war resumed, and Crooke was recalled; officially this was for “security reasons”, but if anything imperilled his security it was probably that after the event, the Israeli tabloids discovered his job title, identity, and photograph with un-mysterious suddenness. He eventually fetched up in Beirut, running a thinktank called the Conflicts Forum, devoted to contact between Western powers and Islamists. (Time was, it would have been a nightclub, but we live in fallen times.)

So, what upshot? Crooke makes a strong case for modern Islamism as a classical reaction to colonialism and modernisation, or rather an interwar vision of modernity. He relies on an impressive battery of reading ranging into cultural Marxism at one end and into hardcore conservatism at the other. More controversially, he tries to place Islamism since the 1950s in a context of rebellion against free-market economics drawn from Naomi Klein; but the Ba’athist and similar regimes hardly qualify as Friedmanites, with their nationalised oil companies, state military industries, and extensive Soviet influence in administration, secret policing, and military doctrine and structure.

He draws on a battery of confidential interviews, which are some of the most interesting things in the book, to illuminate current ideas and practice, specifically among Hezbollah thinkers. Notably, they argue, the Caliphate should now be seen as a world-wide network of loosely interconnected “communities of resistance”, rather than a state or any other kind of hierarchical organisation. The aim of these is to uphold the practice of an ideal, self-organising community of believers against a total onslaught by the forces of liberalism, which wishes us all to be atomised individuals.

In practice, this demands a sort of liberation theology/community-organising/vaguely anarchist drive to create base groups everywhere, drawn together by the practice of mutual aid and the study of critical texts, and if necessary to form the underground shadow-administration common to all good guerrilla armies.

Crooke is interesting on the military implications of this, but I think what he describes is less original than he suggests. Flat, highly networked command structures, with a high degree of autonomy down to the squad and the individual, are not characteristic of Islamic or Islamist warfare; what he is describing here sounds a lot like Auftragstaktik. Also, he describes the requirements of a Hezbollah leader as integrity, authenticity, reliability, personal charisma, and ability to mobilise others; would anyone at all disagree?

There is an interesting side-trip into Islamist economic ideas. He criticises Westeners who assume that the main aim of these is to find technical workarounds to make the normal course of business sharia-compliant; apparently the real thing is considerably better. However, a lot of it (as described here) consists of accepting a market economy but not letting money be the be-all and end-all of everything, etc, etc; in practice, this seems to mean a welfare state. No surprise, then, that one of the thinkers he quotes had to write an entire book to rebut the charge that his ideas were indistinguishable from European social democracy.

According to Crooke, the main distinction is in the field of monetary economics; but, in so far as his writing is a true misrepresentation of it, it seems to be distinct in a way which isn’t particularly original. Apparently, Islamist economists are very exercised about M3 broad money growth, on the grounds that this represents the growth of credit in a fractional-reserve banking system and that this is the root of the evils of capitalism. Instead, they are keen on…the gold standard, that most free-trade imperialist of economic institutions!

At this point you might want to halt briefly; Islamist Auftragstaktik applied to community organising? The Caliphate in terms suited to Clay Shirky? Dear God, Islamist monetarist gold bugs? Phew! And you could, perhaps, take comfort from the thought that however strange Iranian political thought may be, their economic thought is no stranger than Fraser Nelson’s or Jude Wanniski’s. Placing an upper bound on the strangeness, after all, is probably an important step towards international understanding.

Then we get into the second book. Crooke is always quoting Plato, specifically the apposition between the port and the city; he attacks Karl Popper, and uses a great deal of Horkheimer and John Gray. It is fair to say he accepts entirely the complex of critiques that argue that life is meaningless without a higher purpose usually decided by higher people, that the freedom offered by liberalism is no such thing, that trade (or commerce, or industry) is “mere”; it is harder to say whether he accepts this for the sake of argument, as much of the Islamist thinking he is discussing bases itself on these ideas.

And there is a valid argument that a lot of it claims to represent the up-side of such critiques – the need for a self-empowered, cohesive community, the problems of the free market – but might just as well be the downside. The economy should be directed, at a national level, towards certain “great concepts”; this could be post-war French indicative planning, and might well be, having been written in the 1950s – or it could be a Straussian exercise in National Greatness Conservatism. We should work and care for society; or is it, as one of Crooke’s interviewees says, that “life is not worth living without something worth dying for”?

None of this stuff about “false reconciliation” and “self-pacifying”, materialism, etc, etc, answers E. P. Thompson’s classic attack on “theories that assume that ordinary people are bloody silly“, either. Strangely enough, towards the end of the book, we have a sudden swerve back towards liberalism; freedom is not so bad after all, it turns out, compared with a neoconservatism informed by Leo Strauss.

Curiously, I left the book with a feeling that it had set out to make right-wing Americans feel closer to political Shi’ism.

After some fiddling I got Jamie Zawinski’s Dadadodo, a program which analyses texts using a Markov chain and then generates random sentences based on their content, running. Obviously there was only one way this could go – straight to Melanie Phillips’ blog. I reproduce below the output from the machine, verbatim.

DOCTYPE HTML public Melanie Phillips is: stopped.

We can but wish.

Comments Specialist high Value and eliminating the country and is; sleepwalking towards Israel certainly will most likely carry out a complicated thing. From most by the importance of the importance school in Iraq, rubbish out a society what can surely only be easy.

“Comments specialist, high value and eliminating the country, and is sleepwalking towards Israel” – could anyone dispute this as a characterisation of Melanie Phillips? High value, I agree, is harder to sustain, but it could be as in “high value target”.

Iranian president Bush, being defeated by offering to date, objections to a simplistic manner: which thinks logically and fast. Afghanistan comes A hugely unwarranted risk by the Al Qaeda leadership. Additionally, it used to dig have to man made on Feb. The military and rationally British approaches To kill Beware The truth caught out in stockinged feet once it is her most by our staff Liz suggests email to be easy.

The military and rationally British approaches to kill; I’m thinking Basil Liddell-Hart and the indirect approach here. Note the feet theme – it’ll come up again.

Tiberius If infantry soldiers are deviating from Muslim demonstrators, a treasure trove of their property, say soldiers are waging a daily News Commentary for the theory have dream and listed homes.

By George, you’ve got it. It’s a perfect distillation of neo-con aesthetics; not only is there a lot of fantasy violence here, but the soldiers lack Will, and need to be threatened with expropriation to make them go through with it. There’s a reference to Podhoretz’s Commentary, a bit of property porn as well (listed homes?), and the obligatory dog latin.

During Operation. GetTracker, UA pagetracker; gat; States (the truth caught out a Free quote now). Https. Peter Hoskin the sheer madness of such positions as complex as Kafka esque Zionophobia continues to foment hysteria and Friday in Germany, and listed homes.

Again with the real estate.

Continue reading: People tomorrow. From Muslim Afghanistan: comes a world Labour is no evidence that we are ordered to the Washington Times Roger Chapin is the high Value and the cradle of the offensive.

Note: who is Roger Chapin? This guy, who has been writing articles for Human Events Online on “How to Win in Iraq”, and…how can I put this?…taking a large cut of money he collected for wounded soldiers.

And bigotry across Europe, The number of such positions as the Israel certainly will necessarily have to negotiate with the foreign Arab support speakers included combat pilots and pony show Melanie Phillips Blog Daily News Commentary for Spectator SpectatorBusiness Wine Club book is a fateful calculation?

Email to man made on Feb. Email to dig up about morality the dig up about Iran, which States, will necessarily have? Continue reading. Email to the school; in Germany, stockinged feet once it received financial assistance from today’s culture as complex as The many children are graduates of the war in the Spectator prototype scriptaculous Peter Hoskin the mob really hates about the United States, will most likely carry out a simplistic manner. Peter Hoskin Yet The Fakhurawar in, on Feb.

The feet thing again! And note the neediness here – all those e-mails whizzing out, demanding someone else to do some work. Email to dig up about morality – is she (or maybe some downtrodden researcher) trying to tell us that the columns aren’t always her own work?

Just to be sure, I ran the program again. This is the last sentence it produced, before unaccountably erasing all traces of itself from my hard disk…no, of course it didn’t do that. Thank God I can have a machine read Melanie Phillips for me. Anyway, here goes.

And bigotry across Europe, the story it, is her blog Daily Mail columnist.

Update: Temptation. I ran it on an Abu Muqawama post.

Plus, The very least someone is against my opinion. As possible but where are rarely good question, but I was wondering about a Blog dedicated to crack addict moms and security to reconstruction stuff pioneers do not about a power

So was I, baby, so was I…

The times change; children don’t respect their parents, and everyone’s writing a book. However, the forces of interest don’t change, and one place you find them pure is the defence procurement economy. Consider this story. The first thing you’ll note is that it’s kinda plausible, if you’re the kind of person who reads this blog. Giving a contract for helicopters to Italy in return for their cooperation in beating up the Iraq story is the sort of thing George Bush would have done.

The second thing you’ll note, I hope, is that it doesn’t offer any actual link between the two facts. They are just placed close by. On the same basis we ought to be wondering why France invaded Iraq – they were offered a contract for jet tankers. But the new target audience are waiting for horrors about the Bush years, and there are plenty; this is how you convince without lying.

Drill into the text. There are fossils in there which tell us about the history of this stuff; the key to the past lies in the present, as Lyall said. We have the idea that the EH-101 is too heavy to take off – this is 2002-ish Europhobia. Note the implication of European unmanliness, lack of Hard, to say nothing of the raging projection. EH-101s, Merlins, fly daily with maximum loads in hot’n’high Afghanistan and off the decks of frigates in the winter North Atlantic; we even started a new Naval air squadron to go to Afghanistan. Then we have the appeal to uniforms; the pilots! None are quoted, but the Warrior Ethos is invoked. Beyond that, there are vague implications that Finmeccanica (or Westlands as some call it) does business with teh China. Unclean!

Beyond that, all we need to know is encapsulated by the demand that Obama give the job to “the proper supplier, Sikorsky”. Ah, the proper supplier. Clearly, what we are dealing with here is vendor bullshit in a high form – carefully tailored to the concerns of the new government. When We are the masters now, you have to expect that they’ll come up with a new set of lies.

It’s also interesting that Italy is the happy hunting ground of War on Terror drivel, where anything is possible; first of all, the complaisant secret service that facilitated Ledeen’s meetings, then the handy source of interesting documents, later still a provider of reliable carabinieri – they held the Nasiriyah bridges on the first night of the first Shia Rising, unlike all the other flexible friends – and a source of canny disinfo against the same people who are now being offered canny disinfo by the same people who handed out the last lot.

After all, why would SISMI care about a medium-sized light industrial plant in Yeovil? Nobody speaks for them.

More information is becoming available about the Christopher Hitchens brawl. It appears to have been a telling moment in Decency. The crucial detail is that Hitchens didn’t just deface any old SSNP artefact – he scrawled on the monument to the first shots fired in resistance to the Israeli occupation of 1982. Now, I’m sure the Syrian Social Nationalist Party – funny name, funny guys – are far from ideal. Funny swastikoid logoware, want to annex Cyprus, you get the picture.

But it’s hugely telling that Hitchens’ squiffy decision to take The Greatest Intellectual Struggle Of Our Times outside resulted in him doing three things – thinking he was fighting fascists, while in reality he was taking the side of Ariel Sharon, with the upshot that he got a kicking about which he could moan in a publicity-generating manner.

This is, after all, precisely the pattern of his career since the neoconservative turn in about 1998; protesting bitterly that he is on the Left, while mocking and demonising anyone who didn’t agree with the most aggressive hard-right US Republicans and Likudniks, and using the outrage and betrayal that resulted to prove his commitment to his new mates. Up on the Hill, they think I’m OK…they just don’t say, and it is in the nature of being the pet defector that you’ve always got to go further than the others to maintain your position. Hence things like his bizarre appearance on Newsnight to claim that the victims of Hurricane Katrina weren’t Americans.

Down at the tactical level of debate, it’s notable that he spent so much time between 1998-2005 strawmanning the opinions of various deranged groupuscules onto the great majority of British voters; someone like the SSNP, or George Galloway, has always been necessary for successful Decency.

The unconscious speaks. Considering the whole affair as a weird kind of liberal-hawk psychodrama, it’s significant that Hitchens took his stew of unresolved inner conflicts to Beirut, city of unresolved conflicts par excellence and a taste for high living. Both the SSNP brawl, and his self-administered waterboarding, can possibly be seen as a sort of ritual self purification through which he hopes to return to the Left (a Lacanian would call it the Father’s Law), now that gonzo-reporting CPAC has become something for the mainstream rather than a move reserved for Sadly, No!.

I often miss chunks of the humour at the Stiftung because I would rather do almost anything than watch US business-spot TV news. If you wanted to hide something from me, you could do worse than put it next to a TV tuned to CNBC. But I think I experienced something of the culture the good doktor despises so much the other day.

The scene; 3GSM/sorry/MWC keynote session. Dramatis personae: Steve Ballmer, CEO of Microsoft, Olli-Pekka Kallasvuo, ditto of Nokia, Ralph de la Vega, ditto of AT&T Mobility, and moderator Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal. Others present – diverse delegates, press, staff, self.

It was of course dull; you don’t go to the keynotes at tech conferences for content, you go to the actual conference sessions, or for that matter, the cocktail parties. De La Vega’s presentation at least contained actual factual material, Kallasvuo’s was inoffensive and reflected a Finnish disinterest in conference stardom, but Ballmer’s was vacuous to an incredible degree. I was aware of his reputation for histronics, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the degree to which the entire performance was divorced from its content.

He shouted, he stomped around the stage, he gave every impression of passion, but the text was content-free. It was the style of rolling TV news – had the sound been turned off, it would have been possible to synchronise almost any imaginable text with the video. David Hockney once said that in the theatre you don’t put a tree on stage, you put treeness there; this was an exercise in the theatre of Ballmerness.

One reason why I went to the keynote was to witness what happened when Ballmer of all people had to speak on the topic of “openness”; in the event, he avoided the obvious problems here by talking a great deal without saying anything.

He reminded me a little of the only time I ever heard Arthur Scargill speak; he didn’t have anything like Scargill’s style, but he acted in much the same fashion. This is of course the heart of demagogy – it’s all about turning your audience into a crowd, through a display of free-floating emotion. In this case, much of it consisted of a display of empty optimism and emotional stroking – that uniquely American mode, boosterism. We were called on to be optimistic, bullied to be bullish, badgered with progress.

We proceeded to the panel discussion, during which Mossberg encouraged the Great Men to waffle with him at great length about the Apple iPhone, possibly because this was a level of discussion he felt comfortable with. Then, he turned to taking the rise out of the head of Nokia (clearly some minor provincial), apparently having no idea where he was and who the audience were. At one point he used the success of the US automakers as an example; apparently, even if the Europeans had invented the car, blah, blah. Why was Nokia so weak in the US? Kallasvuo replied to this at some length, taking in several major news announcements of the day, some technical issues, questions of design and more.

The subject was changed back to iPhones.

By this point I was only staying in the hall in anticipation of the promised questions from the floor. I had a strong sense of having wasted my time.

Asking provocative questions is a time honoured way of drumming up business at conferences, as well as a contribution in itself. After the next homey anecdote about so-and-so’s wife and the funny little keys on their Nokia, my finger was itching. It was time to throw a pavé in the water. Questions were finally announced, and the first to be called was none other than John Strand, who I interviewed for the first ever story I wrote for Mobile Comms International in 2005.

And that was when the comfortable round of anecdotage was broken up; Strand started positively shouting that the session was outrageously US-centric, that the iPhone made up a tiny percentage of the market, and why weren’t we talking about something more useful? Dead silence…and then, applause. The viewpoint of the entire hall had shifted to yer man, standing near the back, surrounded by horrified organisers.

Neither Mossberg or Ballmer had any answer to this; it was a My Pet Goat moment. The rest of the world had turned up and crashed their OODA loop completely. In a theatrical sense, it was positively Brechtian; his intervention, in breaking the frame, forced an alienated re-evaluation of the characters. Kallasvuo maintained a poker face; there was a rumour that De La Vega sought Strand out later.

Before I or anyone else could move in with a further question, Mossberg announced that the session was closed and left quickly through the stage door, as Strand was still orating, having been deprived of the microphone. I couldn’t help imagining a helicopter on the roof. It was the most fun all week.

fun with drivel

Via Jamie Kenny, Tim “The Tory Blogger for Tories Who Actually Read Blogs” Montgomerie approvingly quotes someone who thinks the world financial crisis is all down to people living together without the approval of either a) your friendly local shaman or b) the State*. The argument, if this is the right word, runs like this; those terrible sinners are more likely to break up, therefore they are more likely to default on their mortgages, therefore the bad mortgages must be theirs.

Even before looking at the factual content of this, there are already a couple of logical flaws here – the assumption that all relationship breakdowns lead to a mortgage default, which assumes facts not in evidence, and the further assumption that because you have one group of hypothetical bad loans, and the banks have a lot of bad loans, it must be that group of bad loans whatdunnit.

Anyway, let’s plug in some numbers. Here’s the divorce rate at the very top of the boom – 2006-2007. It was the lowest for 29 years, 132,562 divorces. Now, obviously, you can’t be divorced if you didn’t get married; but the same forces drive the rate of relationship breakdown for everyone. What are they?

Essentially, people split up because they can’t stand each other for reasons internal to their relationship, or because of strains from outside, which are basically economic. The first group of causes, if it changes at all, changes over decades with change in the broader culture; it would be fair to assume there will always be some percentage of relationships that fail, and over the whole population they are fairly random. It went up from the 50s to the 80s, now it’s going down.

The second group is driven by external forces, specifically the economy – now you would expect this to fluctuate quite a lot, and I would be so bold as to forecast a sharp rise this year. So even if you grant that the rate is higher among the unmarried, it would be really surprising and unlikely if they weren’t correlated – they didn’t respond similarly to the tectonic shifts of the culture and the winds of the economy. Therefore, the whole argument is really unlikely to hold any water, because there probably wasn’t a surge of relationship breakdowns at the top of the boom, and that is still when the damage we are now seeing to the banks originally happened.

Now, the IMF estimates that the total writeoff from US-originated mortgages will be about £1.5 trillion. The US economy is between four and five times the size of ours. Taking a wild-arsed guess, and assuming that the property craziness was roughly similar in both countries (fair enough IMHO), that would mean a total loss of £0.3 trillion – 300 billion quid. (Yes, this is not a very serious model, but as Daniel Davies would say, at least I’m using a model.) The average house price was £224,064 at the peak. Let’s be conservative and project an average LTV (Loan to Value) of 90%, so an average loan would be £201,657.

Even if every divorce resulted in a 100% total loss, we’d still only have £26.7bn of losses from this cause. In fact there aren’t enough divorces even to cover the losses at RBS alone. Even if there were – what? – three times as many nondivorces, which is a crazily charitable assumption because the married are more likely to buy property, that gets us only to £107bn. And this is assuming that the property involved in a default becomes completely worthless. This is obviously silly – the only person who believes that is George Osborne. In fact, if we reckon the crash will get to 30% off the average, we’d need three times as many relationship failures again to balance the books. Not even wrong.

So, why bother spending time and effort refuting an argument that is clearly utter nonsense?

Well, one of the things that struck me was that the comments at Monty’s were surprisingly reasonable. I went in with a crude financial model and my Patent Pachyderm Pants, expecting the bearpit. But the ambience was, indeed, conservative in a good way. So what is Monty up to pushing this crap? The best argument I can see is that the Tories are still starry-eyed about the US Republicans, despite everything that happened since 1995.

This is weird – the Tories didn’t win the Thatcher wars by copying the Republicans, but rather the opposite, and the kinship between Thatcher and Reagan is overstated on the right out of nostalgia. Reagan would have been thrashed around Thatcher’s cabinet room as a Wet and a Spender, and there simply is no parallel in UK politics for the Culture War stuff. But the Tories did, post-Thatcher, fall in love again with the Gingrich years, and it’s arguable that Michael Howard’s ministerial career and 2005 election campaign were efforts at drumming up something in that line.

Clearly, the idea is not yet dead. Which is possibly a good thing – if the Tory gut is still wishing to Live Like Republicans, there’s a racing chance of beating the buggers with post-1995 tactics.

*What is conservative about having your personal life approved by the State or the Church, anyway?

I am in awe of this. Surely this must be some sort of brilliant artistic prank? Where is Chris Morris?

Yes, that is Richard Branson

Yes, that is Richard Branson

The story behind it is that he’s a simulated refugee in an event held during the WEF. Many jokes are of course possible regarding the fact that the people pretending to be refugees are themselves thousands of miles from home, packed into a remote location surrounded by armed guards and dogged by grandstanding journos. If you follow the links from the post at Foreign Policy, you’ll find that they have all been made.

My objection to this is that even if it helped to induce empathy in the participants, that’s not enough; in fact it’s more likely to play into confirmation bias by relieving them of some cognitive dissonance. And then, of course, it’s back to the toolkit of pat solutions you carry with you. Pigeon religion again.

For example, consider this ruck in the comments at Abu Muqawama. I really don’t get why, for some people, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict seems to be framed by rightwing nostrums from 1980s urban policy about “dependency culture”; what next, a zero tolerance drive to fix all the broken windows, vandalism obviously being a gateway drug to terrorism? But I’ve repeatedly seen this, almost always from Americans. And it’s not just a debating point – Donald Rumsfeld thought of appointing Rudy Giuliani chief of police in Baghdad, after all, and aren’t you almost disappointed not to have seen that epic cluster-fuck?

But quite a lot of people’s political views are best understood by posing this question; what qualifies my opinion as serious in a given peer group? Analysing Gaza as if you were running for election in New York City circa 1987 on a law-and-order ticket is objectively insane – it makes as much sense as using one’s remembered views on pay-beds in the NHS from 1978 as a guide to EU-Russia diplomacy.

And the outputs from it are as bad as you might expect; yer man is absolutely furious with me, although we appear to agree that there must be a Palestinian state and by corollary the Israelis will just have to cut their coat according to the cloth. The chief difference is that he thinks that abolishing the UN Relief and Works Agency will somehow lead to the state, rather than the other way around. Again, it’s very 1980s – slash their child benefit until they become better people, dammit, because otherwise…a generation of superpredators will knifecrime the suburbs!!!

There must be a reason for it, though; a meme this strongly conserved is conserved for a reason. I’d guess it’s twofold – one, this is the sort of thing a sensible conservative citizen is meant to say, two, it’s a screen-statement which protects against the fact that we are, after all, discussing the creation of a Palestinian state. And just as the only way to make Richard Branson a refugee is to persecute him out of London…

But then, what kind of pat solutions and dead ideas am I carrying about?