Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Evidence of things not seen

The Iranian President - the man who puts the ‘mad’ into ‘Ahmadinejad’ - has taken his sub-Galloway stand-up routine on a US tour.

Replying to charges of Holocaust denial, he opined:

If - given that the Holocaust is a present reality of our time, a history that occurred, why is there not sufficient research that can approach the topic from different perspectives?

Can you argue that researching a phenomenon is finished, forever done? Can we close the books for good on a historical event?
There are different perspectives that come to light after every research is done. Why should we stop research at all? Why should we stop the progress of science and knowledge?

And on the question of gay rights in Iran, he explained:

In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country. We don't have that in our country. In Iran, we do not have this phenomenon. I don't know who's told you that we have it.

Now, wait just one cotton-picking minute! Come on, Mahmoud, you’re a free-thinking, academically minded man. You keep telling us that there’s always the need for more research into non-existent phenomena.

So… look closer! Study harder! You could set up a brand spanking new Tehran Institute of Queer Studies to investigate this vexed issue. Or maybe just take out a personal ad?

(Perhaps they’re all secretly working on the nuclear weapons programme that Definitely Doesn’t Exist Either...)

Brown rules out October election

Nobody seems to have noticed it, but Gordon Brown has strongly suggested he’s not planning an October election.

In his Andrew Marr interview on Sunday, Brown batted away some opening questions about the prospects of a snap election. But later in the interview (about 47 mins in), Marr asked about any forthcoming troop withdrawals from Iraq. Brown replied:

I’m going to make a statement to the House of Commons when we return in October, and I want to set out to the House of Commons how we are moving in the provinces for which we have responsibility in Iraq from what you might call the combat role to one where the Iraqis themselves take over the responsibility for their own security…

Parliament returns on Monday 8 October. A prime minister has to allow 17 working days between seeking a dissolution and the election date. If Brown made his Iraq statement on this first day back, and then went to see the Queen that same day, then 17 working days later would be Thursday 1 November. Practically, though, that would be a really tight turn of events, so 8 November would be the earliest election date.

Of course, you might say that he could just not bother with the statement – but it’s politically important to him to be able to show that entanglement in Iraq is fading away as a political issue.

A popular date in the speculation has been 25 October, but making this statement would rule that out. Thereafter, the clocks go back and dark early evenings would increasingly hit turnout. A November election’s possible, but I doubt it.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

My space

The blogging rate here is going to drop right off over the coming weeks. I’ve chosen this moment of maximum housing market and interest rate uncertainty to start looking for my first flat to buy, and then of course a mortgage to buy it with.

I’m told that the process of chasing round estate agents, properties, solicitors, surveyors and banks is really very relaxing. So, as a result, I’m sure I’ll be too preternaturally calm to concern myself with writing about such fripperies as I usually concern myself with.

See you around…

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Events, dear boy, events

I almost – almost – feel a little sorry for David Cameron. Since Northern Rock got into trouble last week, he and his gang have been manoeuvring to pin the blame on Gordon Brown.

He was no doubt encouraged in this approach by the TV interviews with people queuing outside the bank’s branches, saying that they worried what this crisis would mean for them and that they didn’t trust the Government’s reassurances. An opposition leader could listen to this and scent political blood.

Doing so, though, was to overlook the sampling bias. By definition, the people in the queues were the ones who were the most anxious; the ones whose vox pops were shown were likely to be those with the most critical things to say. The media were never going to send reporters to non-queuing customers’ houses to interview them – to say nothing of the large majority of people without Northern Rock accounts.

Now we have some better information. A Populus poll in the Times (conducted late Monday) finds that Labour has increased its already-large lead on economic competence in the space of ten days – from 34 points to 38 points. People are more likely to blame the Northern Rock management or the US mortgage market than the UK Government.

Another new poll, by ICM in the Guardian, finds Labour has further increased its voting intention lead over the last month, and is now ahead of the Tories by 40% to 32%. (And some good news for Ming Campbell: thanks to the ‘Cameron crumble’, he’s no longer the least popular party leader.)

Events can kill governments’ reputations; no chancellor or PM wants to see a financial crisis on their watch. But, if people judge that the events aren’t the government’s fault, then the reputation that suffers is usually that of the party already least trusted to handle the issue.

Were he not so dour, Brown might feel like laughing all the way to the bank.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Disproportionate misrepresentation

For sheer pompous idiocy whose lack of wider perspective is eclipsed only by a blindness to its own double standards, you really can’t beat the Lib Dems:

Gordon Brown's attempts to recruit politicians from other parties is a "threat to democracy", Lib Dem Treasury spokesman Vince Cable has warned. He told a meeting at the party conference in Brighton that the prime minister wanted to "create a permanent dominance" for Labour.
The Lib Dems had to "establish ownership rights" on issues such as the environment and Europe, Mr Cable added. They should not allow other parties on to the "centre ground", he said.

Is that clear? For a prime minister to recruit unpaid advisers from other parties is a domineering threat to democracy. But third parties should act to prevent their rivals from adopting certain positions and addressing certain issues.

Good old Lib Dems: if they didn’t exist, you’d have to launch a consultation on the constitutional procedures of a sub-committee to consider a range of options for taking forward the process of deciding whether or not to invent them.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Adjusting to change

I think we’re all now used to the deep, Scots tones that follow radio and television presenters mentioning “the Prime Minister”. But because of Alistair Darling’s much lower profile, I still find myself half-expecting that very same voice when “the Chancellor” is introduced.

I remember it took me a couple of months in 1997 to stop shuddering at the words “I’m joined now by the Deputy Prime Minister…”

Although I did eventually get back into that habit.

A very British panic

Watching TV pictures of people calmly, patiently queuing outside branches of Northern Rock, it struck me that this is a very British panic (to misquote Chris Mullin). Not so much a run on the bank as a fairly purposeful saunter.

What’s gone wrong? Roughly speaking, after the defaults in the dodgier parts of the US mortgage industry, financial institutions around the world have become more sceptical about the quality of each others’ assets. This means they’re more reluctant to lend to each other. And that means they’re more susceptible to cash-flow problems.

This is what’s happened to Northern Rock, which has thus opened up a line of credit from the Bank of England so that it can continue operating. This is an expensive resort, both in terms of the interest rate and the reputational damage: hence the big falls in its share price and the queues to withdraw money.

But other UK financial institutions haven’t been so affected (at least, not yet). Why not?

Simply: NR was the most exposed, meaning it needed to borrow more on the markets as a matter of course. Its ratio of loans to deposits was 3.1; the second most exposed, Bradford & Bingley, is well behind with a ratio of 1.8. The average for major banks is 1.1.

David Cameron thinks he’s discovered someone to blame (as do the Lib Dems). You’ll never guess who:

Under Labour our economic growth has been built on a mountain of debt. And as any family with debts knows, higher debt makes us more vulnerable to the unexpected. In short, the increases in debt in the UK have added a new risk to economic stability.

This makes superficial sense. More debt commitments do make you more vulnerable to a rise in interest rates or a loss of income. But interest rates have been lower than in the preceding decade, meaning that while outstanding debt has become much higher, actual debt repayments as a proportion of (rising) income have risen much more modestly.

Furthermore, the higher debt levels across the economy mean that when the Bank of England decides to raise interests rates to slow down inflation, it needs to raise them by far less than in the past to get the equivalent effect. Rates have been stabler, as well as lower.

As I said, NR has got into trouble because of its decision to expose itself to an unusually high loans-to-deposits ratio. Other banks have not done so, and yet they’ve been operating in the UK economy as well. The distinctive feature is the policies of individual financial institutions, not Government policies.

And here’s another thought: would people now be less at risk if they’d been saving more and borrowing less? Well, consider the motives of the queuing NR customers: are they keen to withdraw money in case the bank collapses and they lose their savings, or are they desperate to pay off their debts?

Just one week ago, Cameron offered a more balanced appraisal of the (pre-Northern-Rockiness) situation:

Our hugely sophisticated financial markets match funds with ideas better than ever before. They have facilitated cheap credit that has helped companies expand, helped families achieve their dreams, and helped entrepreneurs put their ideas into practice. Yet that same cheap credit has also increased the social problems associated with over-indebtedness, and potentially has made us more vulnerable to global shocks.

I concede this: if there hadn’t been the amount of borrowing there has over the last decade, then there probably would now be less risk of an economic slowdown. The reason for that, though, is that the economy would have been a lot slower all along.

There’s no such thing as a risk-free investment, and there’s no such thing as a risk-free economic policy. One week of hindsight doesn’t change that.

(One final point. If the housing market is going to crash, could it please happen in the next week or two? I’m about to start flat-hunting for the first time…)

(Update: Chris has a good take on this. As ever, he’s several orders of magnitude better informed than I am.)

(Update 2: the Guardian has nicked my headline. Inadvertently, I'm sure...)

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Staying alive

I don’t usually put images on my blog. But this one’s just great:

(From the BBC.)

What it means is that over 3 million more children get to see their fifth birthday each year.

Child mortality in developing countries is still tragically, needlessly high, but where there are resources and political will, the way to save large numbers of young lives is no mystery. So says Unicef, which compiled the figures:

Much of the progress is the result of the widespread adoption of basic health interventions, such as early and exclusive breast feeding, measles immunisation, Vitamin A supplementation and the use of insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria.

I dimly remember being five; I couldn’t have conceived of dying.

This is really good progress, but a lot more is needed. And it might help to spur the politicians on if we devoted as much concern to the millions of under-fives still dying each year as we do to the fate of one particular four-year-old.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Three things I’ve learned this week

  1. A fake grassroots movement is known as an Astroturf campaign.
  2. Nearly-round-number prices (e.g. £9.99) were introduced not to make things seem cheaper, but to force cashiers to give a penny change, so they have to put the transaction through the till and can’t just pocket the tenner.
  3. There is an inexhaustible supply of halfwits willing to pronounce with authority both on the progress and competence of a Portuguese police investigation based on a few vague leaks, and on the guilt or innocence of two suspects based on their TV appearances. Although actually, I was already pretty familiar with the media torrent of confident, emotive ignorance that passes for analysis and insight.

(Chris is managing to learn seven things a week; I’m slower on the uptake.)

Self-serving git of the decade

Osama bin Laden (used to be big in terrorism, more recently an intermittent media pundit), as well as being vain, is also a raging hypocrite.

In his latest sermon from the diary room, he fumes about “the killing of more than 650,000 of the people of Iraq as a result of the war and its repercussions”.

Bafflingly, he omits to mention that his mates are responsible for a fair amount of that killing.

This has not escaped notice. A poll of Iraqis released yesterday finds that while general pessimism has increased even further since February, people are now more likely to blame the violence in the country on al-Qaeda and foreign jihadis than on the US/coalition forces.

Bin Laden also proudly points out that “burning living beings is forbidden in our religion”, and yet somehow doesn’t make the connection between this and what happens when you get some big metal tubes full of living beings and aviation fuel and fly them at great speed into big buildings full of even more living beings.

Still, at least his handsome new look should impress those 72 virgins – if he ever gets round to daring to practise what he preaches.


Saturday, September 08, 2007

‘Dye, infidels!’

Between his previous straight-to-video release and his latest, Osama bin Laden has turned into Blackbeard.

Conspiracy and incitement to mass murder is one thing, but vanity? Dear oh dear; Islamic fundamentalism just isn’t what it used to be.

(And I’m afraid anyone wanting to understand the root causes of terrorism is going to have to wait a little while until those roots start showing.)

Friday, September 07, 2007

On top of the world

Standard atlases have the North Pole smeared out along the top, in a ridiculous but necessary compromise with the need to represent a sphere in rectangle form.

From Le Monde Diplomatique, here’s a strategic map of this “sea surrounded by land” [PDF] that’s been getting more and more political attention lately.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The latest new thing for da yoof

David Cameron has announced what the Sun calls “an imaginative and optimistic idea”. It is:

Every 16-year-old will be expected to devote their summer holiday to “patriotic” national service under radical Tory plans to be unveiled today. They will give up six weeks to put something back into Britain.

Teenagers will NOT be forced by law to take part in the [National Citizen Service].

And, in case you were wondering,

Mr Cameron admits the programme has yet to be costed.

The idea certainly sounds optimistic. It’s hardly imaginative, though. It’s been proposed before.

In January 2006, a similar idea was announced:

Forcing school leavers to do three or four months of community service could help bring people together, Tory leader David Cameron has said. …
He will say his "instinct" is for the scheme to be compulsory.

Clearly his instinct failed him, as the ‘new’, ‘radical’ proposal is only voluntary. Back then, he thought:

If it isn't compulsory or if it isn't universal it could tend to be something else that well-off families do because it's good for their kids but it would not actually reach some of the most marginalised families and excluded children who actually would really benefit.

Oh well.

He also announced the scheme in November 2005, and before that in August 2005, under the imaginative and optimistic leadership of Michael Howard.

But it’s good to see these ideas from the Tories, even if they’re not new. You’d never get anything like this from Gordon Brown. Well, apart from back in March 2005:

A million volunteers will be recruited over the next five years under the UK's first national community service, Gordon Brown announced yesterday.
A £150m national framework for youth volunteering is intended to see 16 to 25-year-olds offered a range of opportunities within their local communities, elsewhere in Britain or overseas.

They could offer their time and skills in areas including health, heritage and culture, community safety, sport, conservation and education. The scheme would match young people's "idealism and their willingness to serve with the needs of communities across our country and internationally", Mr Brown said.

The government-funded, charity-led scheme has been up and running for over a year.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Moo (Or, ‘A careful look at recent developments in science and policing’)

While dozing with the radio on, I managed to confuse two stories in my head. And so I found myself wondering why a senior judge would want all hybrid human-cow embryos to have their DNA registered with the police, even if they hadn’t committed a crime.

Most human-cow hybrids are very law-abiding, you see, in contrast to the fully human feral youths that roam our streets, wearing their asbos as a Badge of Pride (© every lazy hack in the business).

The extra cow DNA produces youngsters that are more docile and more inclined to chew their food properly (although admittedly they fart and drool more). Many go on to hold down successful careers as TV presenters. I can see no reason to drag these decent, honest Bovo sapiens down to the police station for the intrusive humiliation of having swabs taken and entered into a sinister government database.

I do appreciate that members of the human community may feel discriminated against due to their disproportionate likelihood of being stopped and arrested and having their DNA taken, but if they don’t like it they should stop being such a load of thieving violent workshy good-for-nothings.

(NB for those horrified at the prospect of part-cow-part-human embryos: get over it. Genetically, you are already largely cow. You are partly sycamore tree, mostly chimpanzee and well over 99% genetically identical to me. This last number explains your good looks, by the way.)