Are you sure you should be doing that?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Mexico and drugs liberalization: a dark side?

Drug-takers and principled libertarians have welcomed the news that Mexico is to decriminalise drugs and close down the country's equivalent of the FBI. But behind it there may be more than the desire to reduce the horrifying death toll from gang wars.

There are disquieting rumours about newly-elected President Enrique Peña Nieto's personal life. His alleged gay lover, Agustín Humberto Estrada Negrete, claimed that Peña Nieto murdered his wife Monica Pretelini; her two bodyguards were subsequently killed while escorting the family, who were left unhurt; Negrete claims later to have been threatened, near-fatally assaulted and then fled to San Diego in California, from where he has continued to denounce his alleged former bedmate, as recently as last April.

There are also allegations of Peña Nieto's dealings with organised crime syndicates. It is even claimed that the latter helped fund his election campaign.

The winding-up of Mexico's "FBI" may not be merely a consequence of the drugs decision. Established in 2001, the Agencia Federal de Investigación (AFI) was tasked to fight not only organised crime but corruption. Reorganised in 2009 and renamed the Policía Federal Ministerial (PFM), it is said to have been penetrated by the gangs. But this is a danger for all intelligence organisations and not in itself sufficient reason for dispensing with them.

Is the President closing the PFM because it will no longer be needed, or because its own security is irredeemably compromised, or because if left in place it could eventually mount a full investigation into his own alleged activities?

As to the drug cabals, it remains to be seen whether legalisation stops the violence or instead steps it up as crime syndicates vie for control of the hugely lucrative industry prior to reincarnation as legitimate businesses.

Not so green: "eco" factors behind landgrabbing and food shortages

After Ethiopia (see yesterday's post), here's Friends of the Earth International on Uganda, and how land-grabbing and speculation is driven in part by high-minded attempts to find alternatives to oil, to get carbon credits and to "conserve"the environment. What a mess.

(Highlights in the excerpted text are mine.)


1.2 The demand for land

A number of different factors lie behind this phenomena. Many cash rich and land poor governments are trying to secure food supplies by buying land overseas for domestic supplies. Land and resource rich but cash poor governments are seeking foreign direct investment in land and agriculture. While many of the governments involved are seeking to expand their domestic production of food crops and crops for fuel, agribusiness is seeking to expand its operations and boost profits, growing more, more cheaply; growing new crops for new markets, particularly for agrofuels – as well as gaining access to new markets in rapidly developing economies. Investors and speculators are looking for good investment returns.

Governments and private companies are both keen to gain access to fertile land at a low cost. Rapid increases in the food prices in recent years left many governments aware of their vulnerability to the market and eager to boost domestic food supplies. Countries such as China, India and Egypt want to ensure they have access to rice and grain. Other countries such as Saudi Arabia have recognised that the changing climate and limited water supplies mean that some crops can no longer be grown at home. Instead they are looking to outsource production to areas where fertile land and water are in greater supply.

Land grabbing for food has been recorded across Africa, notably in the Sudan and Uganda; in Pakistan, in Cambodia; in Russia, the Ukraine and Georgia; and in parts of South America, including Paraguay and Brazil. Some of these are countries which struggle to feed their own populations – but which have enough fertile land to attract foreign investors.

The growing demand for vegetable oils in particular, driven by increased human consumption and the promotion of agrofuels, particularly in Europe, has led to expansion of industrial monocultures. The growing market for palm oil has seen companies buying up land in tropical areas of Africa and Asia to establish plantations. Similarly, soy has expanded in South America, and land has been grabbed for jatropha in India, Indonesia and a number of African countries.

High levels of demand for land have pushed up prices, bringing in investors and speculators. With long term forecasts predicting increasing water shortages and other climatic changes to agriculture, few expect the price of land to fall. As a result, the big investment banks have moved into farming, buying up agricultural land, livestock farms and processing plants.

Another driver of land grabbing is particular types of environmental conservation projects such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing countries (REDD) projects that generate carbon credits from plantations. The appropriation of land and resources for environmental ends has been termed as ‘green grabbing’ (Vidal, 2008). In many cases communities that have managed and conserved forests for many generations are locked out of their communal forest lands due to conservation needs. As plantations are accepted as forests in international definitions, forested land is replaced by tree plantations aimed at generating carbon credits for companies (FOEI, 2008).

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

John Company colonizes Ethiopia

Two recent themes on this blog have been (a) agricultural investment and (b) companies that are as powerful (and possibly as wicked) as governments.

How about the "resettlement" of 1,500,000 Ethiopians to make way for corporate agri-grab?

That story ran in January, but there's lots more on this long-running issue - just Google up "land seizure ethiopia" or similar. And it's happening across Africa.

If you need a current hook to hang it off, here's a Norwegian story reproduced on farmlandgrab.org. Google Translate will give you enough to get the gist, e.g.:

Nykolonialisering in the form of landrov may have different face from country to country. The common denominator is that topsoil has been the hottest investment item, after the housing market broke down. Money pursuit of profit. Investors know that food and topsoil is scarce. It is important to position themselves. Liberti citing an unnamed manager of a South American investment fund. He goes straight to the point at a conference for investors, "We need to stop beating around the bush.

Agroindustrielle big companies take croplands, water and markets away from farmers. We can sell our products at lower prices and undercut peasant family farms. It must make decisions which are also of political nature.
The world needs an effective agricultural producing on a large scale.

But it is not possible to promote this model without any loses. "Many believe that everything is taken political decisions. Bond activist Henry Saragih from Indonesia is The Guardian hailed as one of the fifty people who can save the world.
He says landrov is part of a agroindustriell model that is being promoted by the World Bank, IMF, FAO and the EU:

"On the basis of vaguely worded principles of" responsible investment in agriculture "legitimize these institutions actually broader violations of farmers' rights."

"... the World Bank, IMF, FAO and the EU": as an idealistic teenager/tweenie, I liked the idea of supranational government. Now, I begin to think that it, and the money-forces to which it allies itself, pave the way for an evil worldwide oligarchy. Just wait till they have no further need for ourselves. Meanwhile, Ethiopians are being turfed off like the Chechens under Stalin.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Big Brother vs Big Company

Lovers of liberty are naturally and rightly suspicious of governments, which, as Charles Lamb said, "are as bad as they dare to be."

But corporations can be just as big and as hard to restrain, especially since they have the money to attract some of the best talent, and can shop around the globe for their preferred legal and tax jurisdictions.

Wikipedia lists 185 companies that have revenue in excess of $50 billion per annum. The CIA World Factbook lists 220 countries and dependant territories, together with their estimated GDP. Combining them into one list of major economic entities (ignoring the EU, which is not a country), we find:

1. Companies represent 40 out of the top 100 entities.
2. Only 23 countries are bigger than Exxon Mobil; and the latter's turnover is bigger than the combined GDP of the 100 smallest nations.
3. Even the smallest company listed here, Best Buy, has revenues higher than 183 nations.
4. BP has more employees than the populations of any one of the smallest 43 countries.
5. The combined revenues of the US housing quangos Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac total $264 billion, more than the GDP of Singapore.
6. The third biggest company, Walmart, is the 30th largest economic entity here and has more turnover than South Africa.
7. The 29 oil-and-gas companies on the list have a combined revenue exceeding $4.5 trillion - more than all but the three highest-GDP countries.
8. UK shoppers will be interested to see that supermarket chain Tesco ties at #100 in the list below - and its position may be strengthened if some of the banks, insurers and car companies suffer a reversal.

As multinational businesses have become larger (and often freer in their financial dealings) than many of the world's nations, our attention must turn to the growing power and potential dangers of corporate enterprises, as well as of the corrupt and tyrannical political regimes which sometimes work in partnership with them.





INVESTMENT DISCLOSURE: Mostly in cash (and index-linked National Savings Certificates), but now planning to build up some reserves of physical gold via regular saving.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content.

Big Brother vs Big Company

Lovers of liberty are naturally and rightly suspicious of governments, which, as Charles Lamb said, "are as bad as they dare to be."

But corporations can be just as big and as hard to restrain, especially since they have the money to attract some of the best talent, and can shop around the globe for their preferred legal and tax jurisdictions.

Wikipedia lists 185 companies that have revenue in excess of $50 billion per annum. The CIA World Factbook lists 220 countries and dependant territories, together with their estimated GDP. Combining them into one list of major economic entities (ignoring the EU, which is not a country), we find:

1. Companies represent 40 out of the top 100 entities.
2. Only 23 countries are bigger than Exxon Mobil; and the latter's turnover is bigger than the combined GDP of the 100 smallest nations.
3. Even the smallest company listed here, Best Buy, has revenues higher than 183 nations.
4. BP has more employees than the populations of any one of the smallest 43 countries.
5. The combined revenues of the US housing quangos Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac total $264 billion, more than the GDP of Singapore.
6. The third biggest company, Walmart, is the 30th largest economic entity here and has more turnover than South Africa.
7. The 29 oil-and-gas companies on the list have a combined revenue exceeding $4.5 trillion - more than all but the three highest-GDP countries.
8. UK shoppers will be interested to see that supermarket chain Tesco ties at #100 in the list below - and its position may be strengthened if some of the banks, insurers and car companies suffer a reversal.

As multinational businesses have become larger (and often freer in their financial dealings) than many of the world's nations, our attention must turn to the growing power and potential dangers of corporate enterprises, as well as of the corrupt and tyrannical political regimes which sometimes work in partnership with them.




Call to reverse farmland investment

A couple of months ago I said I had moral qualms about the trend towards agricultural investment.

Now there's an article from the same site (farmlandgrab.org), looking at proposals to regulate the process somehow.

The writer doesn't buy it:

... the rules are always about making the project work for the investor. Local communities, soils, watersheds, local labour markets and even the domestic food security situation in the host country are treated as risk factors that need to be mitigated. The objective is to manage costs, including those connected to reputational risks, to ensure an acceptable return. The rules for responsible farmland investment are thus for the investor, for whom taking care of the fallout for local people becomes another cost of doing business -- and one that companies can make profits from to boot.

... Other sectors where this has been tried out -- sustainable cotton, sustainable soy, responsible palm oil, timber, banking and whatnot -- have a profoundly blotted track record.

... What we need is not responsible farmland investment, but divestment. By this we mean that rather than trying to make this new trend of financialising farmland work, these deals need to be stopped and undone, with the lands restituted to the communities that lived from them. And instead of promoting the growth of industrial agriculture, we need to strengthen family- and community-based food sovereignty approaches, across the world. Initiatives are being taken in these directions, aiming to choke capital flows into firms with a history of land grabbing or into funds specifically set up to peddle rights to farmland, bolstered by advocacy and political pressure to support small-scale family-based farming systems and local markets. While it is a huge and uphill battle, it's clear that we need to stop the financing of land grabs, not make it responsible.

Again and again, I feel that Big Corporation is not an alternative to Big Brother. For example, it's not so very long since Monsanto was trying for a scheme that would have economically enslaved farmers across the world: the "terminator gene" project, finally halted (or is it finally?) in 1999.

Lovers of liberty need to look over their right shoulder as well as their left.

INVESTMENT DISCLOSURE: Mostly in cash (and index-linked National Savings Certificates), but now planning to build up some reserves of physical gold via regular saving.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content.

Call to reverse farmland investment



A couple of months ago I said I had moral qualms about the trend towards agricultural investment.

Now there's an article from the same site (farmlandgrab.org), looking at proposals to regulate the process somehow.

The writer doesn't buy it:

... the rules are always about making the project work for the investor. Local communities, soils, watersheds, local labour markets and even the domestic food security situation in the host country are treated as risk factors that need to be mitigated. The objective is to manage costs, including those connected to reputational risks, to ensure an acceptable return. The rules for responsible farmland investment are thus for the investor, for whom taking care of the fallout for local people becomes another cost of doing business -- and one that companies can make profits from to boot.

... Other sectors where this has been tried out -- sustainable cotton, sustainable soy, responsible palm oil, timber, banking and whatnot -- have a profoundly blotted track record.

... What we need is not responsible farmland investment, but divestment. By this we mean that rather than trying to make this new trend of financialising farmland work, these deals need to be stopped and undone, with the lands restituted to the communities that lived from them. And instead of promoting the growth of industrial agriculture, we need to strengthen family- and community-based food sovereignty approaches, across the world. Initiatives are being taken in these directions, aiming to choke capital flows into firms with a history of land grabbing or into funds specifically set up to peddle rights to farmland, bolstered by advocacy and political pressure to support small-scale family-based farming systems and local markets. While it is a huge and uphill battle, it's clear that we need to stop the financing of land grabs, not make it responsible.

Again and again, I feel that Big Corporation is not an alternative to Big Brother. For example, it's not so very long since Monsanto was trying for a scheme that would have economically enslaved farmers across the world: the "terminator gene" project, finally halted (or is it finally?) in 1999.

Lovers of liberty need to look over their right shoulder as well as their left.

INVESTMENT DISCLOSURE: Mostly in cash (and index-linked National Savings Certificates), but now planning to build up some reserves of physical gold via regular saving.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hair funnies (NSFW, also don't drink or operate machinery)

This one (for women) I first saw a long time ago, but the memory lingers on:

Waxing

All methods have tricked me with their promises of easy, painless removal - the Epilady, the standard razor, the scissors, the Nair, the EpilStop, and now ...The Wax.

My night began as any other normal weekday night. I came home from work, fixed dinner for my son and we played for a while. I then had the thought that would ring painfully in my mind for the next couple hours: maybe I should use that wax in my medicine cabinet. I set up my boy with a video and head to the site of my demise, um, I mean bathroom.

It was one of those cold wax kits. No melting a clump of hot wax, you just rub the clear strips in your hand, peel them apart, press it on your leg (or wherever) and ignore the frantically rising crescendo of string instruments in the background. No muss, no fuss. How hard can this be? I mean, I'm not the girly-est of girls but I'm mechanically inclined so maybe I can figure out how this works. You'd think. So I pull one of the thin strips out. It's two strips facing each other, stuck together. I'm supposed to rub it in my hand to warm and soften the wax (I'm guessing). I go one better: I pull out the hair dryer! And heat the SOB to ten thousand degrees. Cold wax, my ass. (Oh, how that phrase will come back to haunt me.)

I lay the strip across my thigh. I hold the skin around it and pull. OK, so it wasn't the best feeling in the world, but it wasn't bad. I can do this! Hair removal no longer eludes me! I am She-Ra, fighter of all wayward body hair and smooth skin extraordinaire!

With my next wax strip, I move north. After checking on the boy and verifying that he was, in fact, becoming one with Bear and learning all about smells, I sneak into the bathroom for The Ultimate Hair Fighting Championship. I drop my panties and place one foot on the toilet. Using the same procedure, I then apply the wax strip! across the right side on my bikini line, covering the right half of my vagina and stretching up into the inside of the right ass cheek. (Yeah, it was a long strip.)

I inhale deeply. I brace myself. RRRIIIIPPP!!!!

I'm blind! Blind from the pain! ....... Vision returning.

Oh crap. I've managed to pull off half an inch of the strip.

Another deep breath. And RIIIP! Everything is swirly and tie-dyed? Do I hear crashing drums? OK, coming back to normal again. I want to see my trophy - my wax covered pelt that caused me so much agony. I want to revel in the glory that is my triumph over body hair. I hold the wax strip like an Olympic gold medallist.

But why is there no hair on it? Why is the wax mostly gone?

Where could the wax go, if not on the strip?

Slowly, I eased my head down, my foot still perched on the toilet. I see hair - the hair that should be on the strip. I touch. I feel. I am touching wax. I look to the ceiling! and silently shout "nooooooo!!"

And realize I have just begun living my own personal version of "The Tar Baby."

I peel my fingers off the softest, most sensitive part of my body that is now Covered in cold wax and matted hair, and make the next big mistake - up until this point, you'll remember, I've had my foot on the toilet. I know I need to move, to do something. So I put my foot down on the floor. And then I hear the slamming of the cell door. Vagina? Sealed shut. Ass? Sealed shut. A little voice in my head says "I hope you don't have to shit anytime soon. Your head just might pop off." I penguin walk around the bathroom trying desperately to figure out what I should do next.

Hot water! Hot water melts wax! I'll run the hottest water I can stand and get in - the wax should melt and I can gently wipe it away, right? Wrong.

I get in the tub - the water is slightly hotter than is used to torture prisoners of war or sterilize surgical equipment. And I sit.

Now the only thing worse than having your goodies glued together is having them glued together and then glued to the bottom of a tub. In scalding hot water. Which, by the way, does not melt the cold wax.

So now I'm stuck to the tub. I call my friend, C, because she once dropped out of beauty school So surely she has some secret knowledge or trick to get wax off skin. It's ever good to start a conversation with "So my ass and vagina are stuck to the tub."

She doesn't have a trick. She does her best to suppress laughter. She wants to know exactly where the wax is on the ass. "Are we talking cheek or hole, here?" she asks. She isn't even trying to hide the giggles now.

I give her the run-down of the entire night. She tells me to call the number on the side of the box, but to have a good cover story for where the wax actually is. "You know that if we were working the help line at XX Wax Co. and somebody called with their entire crack sealed shut we'd just put them on hold then record the conversation for everyone we know. You're going to end up on a radio show or the Internet if you tell them the truth.

While we go through various solutions, I have resorted to scraping the wax off with a razor. Boy, nothing feels better to the girly goodies than covering them in wax, sticking them to a tub

In the middle of the conversation (which has inexplicably turned to Other subjects!) I find the little, beautiful saving grace that is the lotion provided with this torturous box of wax, to remove the ‘excess’.

I rub some in and start screaming "It's working! It's working!" I get hearty congratulations from C and we hang up.

I successfully remove all the wax and notice, to my dismay, that the Hair is still there. So I shaved the damned stuff off.

Hell, I was numb by that point anyway. And then I put the box of wax back in my medicine cabinet! Never know when a mustache might start to come in.

Tonight, I attempt hair dying.

... but this one (for men - and hard-hearted women) has just recently started to do the rounds:

A review of Veet for Men

After having been told my danglies looked like an elderly Rastafarian I decided to take the plunge and buy some of this as previous shaving attempts had only been mildly successful and I nearly put my back out trying to reach the more difficult bits. Being a bit of a romantic I thought I would do the deed on the missus's birthday as a bit of a treat.  I ordered it well in advance and working in the North sea I considered myself a bit above some of the characters writing the previous reviews and wrote them off as soft office types...oh my fellow sufferers how wrong I was. I waited until the other half was tucked up in bed and after giving some vague hints about a special surprise I went down to the bathroom. Initially all went well and I applied the gel and stood waiting for something to happen.

I didn't have long to wait.

At first there was a gentle warmth which in a matter of seconds was replaced by an intense burning and a feeling I can only describe as like being given a barbed wire wedgie by two people intent on hitting the ceiling with my head. Religion hadn't featured much in my life until that night but I suddenly became willing to convert to any religion to stop the violent burning around the turd tunnel and what seemed like the destruction of the meat and two veg.

Struggling to not bite through my bottom lip I tried to wash the gel of in the sink and only succeeded in blocking the plughole with a mat of hair. Through the haze of tears I struggled out of the bathroom across the hall into the kitchen by this time walking was not really possible and I crawled the final yard to the fridge in the hope of some form of cold relief. I yanked the freezer drawer out and found a tub of ice cream, tore the lid of and positioned it under me. The relief was fantastic but only temporary as it melted fairly quickly and the fiery stabbing soon returned .

Due to the shape of the ice cream tub I hadn't managed to give the starfish any treatment and I groped around in the draw for something else as I was sure my vision was going to fail fairly soon.I grabbed a bag of what I later found out was frozen sprouts and tore it open trying to be quiet as I did so.I took a handful of them and tried in vain to clench some between the cheeks of my arse. This was not doing the trick as some of the gel had found it's way up the chutney channel and it felt like the space shuttle was running it's engines behind me.

This was probably and hopefully the only time in my life I was going to wish there was a gay snowman in the kitchen which should give you some idea of the depths I was willing to sink to in order to ease the pain. The only solution my pain crazed mind could come up with was to gently ease one of the sprouts where no veg had gone before.

Unfortunately, alerted by the strange grunts coming from the kitchen the other half chose that moment to come and investigate and was greeted by the sight of me, arse in the air, strawberry ice cream dripping from my bell end pushing a sprout up my arse while muttering..." Ooooh that feels good ". Understandably this was a shock to her and she let out a scream and as I hadn't heard her come in it caused an involuntary spasm of shock in myself which resulted in the sprout being ejected at quite some speed in her direction.

I can understand that having a sprout farted against your leg at 11 at night in the kitchen probably wasn't the special surprise she was expecting and having to explain to the kids the next day what the strange hollow in the ice cream was didn't improve my status...So to sum it up Veet removes hair, dignity and self respect.


UPDATE: the earliest online source I can find for the second piece is here.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Assange: more than 14 years to go to beat the record

How times change. The USA was once willing to provide political asylum in its Budapest embassy for 15 years:



The memorial plaque reads:

"The Government of the United States of America gave shelter to Cardinal Joseph Mindszenty in this building between November 4, 1956 - September 28, 1971"

"Az Amerikai Egyesült Államok kormánya ebben az épületben adott menedéket Mindszenty József bíborosnak 1956. november 4. – 1971. szeptember 28. között"

In my view, the Government of Great Britain has suffered enormous reputational damage for even considering breaching diplomatic protocol. Much of the rest of the world will tell itself that the mask slipped for a moment and showed the ugly face of our ruthless, law-despising power elite. Real tyrants like Putin will be able to say "tu quoque" when justifying their own short way with dissenters.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Oz fags - buy them while you can

"Plain packaging" is a misnomer when it comes to the new Australian regs:



Although not (for many years now) a smoker, I am tempted to buy some of these, for they won't be around forever. They will be collector's items in future, and good (benson and) hedges against inflation.

Look after them well, and don't break the cellophane - condition is so important at auction.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Three levels of freedom

There are at least three different levels or arenas of the freedom debates. Much of the heat in a debate springs from the argument shifting midway from one area to another. Please accept this as a first poor attempt at mapping out the ground.

1. Collective freedom

Struggle between groups. Groups of people who have some common identity and feel oppressed or insufficiently involved in the power structures that govern them. E.g. national sovereignty vs the EU, the suffragette movement, the abolition of slavery. Sometimes, as in the last two examples, there is significant support from outsiders in their struggle.

This debate is generally about fairness.

Factual argument will be about how one group suffers more, or benefits less, than another, in terms of personal income and wealth, longevity, health etc.

Moral argument will be based on the sense of unearned privilege or luck of those outside the group.

The counter-argument to this is that the privileged pay for the difference by protecting and succouring others (e.g. treating servants kindly, providing for them in sickness or age, educating their children, giving to charity, leaving bequests in wills, administering justice in peacetime, leading in time of war). Another compensation is to accept additional restrictions on their personal conduct, or voluntarily to risk greater misfortune or suffer extraordinary pain (e.g. Aztec kings dragged ceremonial knotted ropes through holes in their tongues). In some cases, there is an appeal to (false?) identification: the privileged are allowing the less fortunate to live through them in imagination.

The counter-counter-argument is that the difference is never quite paid for in full.

Contradiction: when a group wins, it sets terms for those who disagree. Freedom of speech is limited to protect minorities; Marxists impose equality of wealth by suppressing enterprise, at the same time allowing Party members material privileges to buy their loyalty. There is no freedom for all unless all think the same way.

In commercial terms, the underdog can eventually become the oppressive overdog. Thus a certain outstandingly successful supermarket grew by offering benefits to its customers, but latterly has (allegedly) attempted to buttress its position by exploiting its suppliers to the point of financial ruin, buying land around its stores to prevent competition from springing up, worsening the contracts of its lorry-drivers etc.

2. Individual freedom

The individual's desire for more leeway in their personal conduct (e.g. to smoke in pubs, engage in certain sexual practices, take currently illicit drugs, go everywhere in the nude).

This debate is generally about harmlessness, at least with respect to others.

Factual argument will centre on statistics relating to mortality, morbidity, economics, health and crime on others (neighbours, partners, children, the public at large) and the costs to society of treating or preventing these undesired side-effects, which shade off into claimed wider and longer-term consequences (e.g. health effects of secondary smoking).

Moral and political argument will be about whether society in general should be involved in mitigating harm to third parties (e.g. should social workers intervene in families of alcoholics, wife-beaters etc). Should society save the "victims", punish the "offenders" or leave altogether alone?

There will also be an appeal to social or religious norms; some will say that the individual must accept certain behavioural restrictions so that the uncodified patterns of behaviour and expectation that are felt to hold society together are not weakened. Thus some will argue that it is important to set a good personal example, or not to set a bad one (this has implications for professions such as teaching); similarly, certain behaviours are felt to have the potential to provoke socially disruptive reactions and measures are instituted to limit them (e.g. sumptuary laws, rules on what may be said about others in public - or even in private).

The individualist may dispute the fact as far as possible, and beyond that appeal to the principle that every other individual must take responsibility for their own responses. Norms will be represented as arbitrary and unnecessary for human happiness; it will be claimed that society will hold together without them.

To set oneself against others is to make oneself vulnerable, so the individualist will attempt to form (often uneasy) alliances, and raise the debate or struggle to the level of a collective-freedom issue. Thus with the groups effectively defined by their "oppressor" we will find some groups who are self-defined by some chosen issue.

But the fundamentalist individualist may not bother to ask society's permission at all. In the first place, getting rules changed is an uncertain and long-term project; secondly, to ask permission or to gather collective approval is (in principle) to cede one's personal power to others.

Contradiction: the individual may turn his dislike of others' power over him, into a mission to get power over others. At the extreme end we get Mao, Stalin etc. On a lesser scale, we get what is said to be the statistical over-representation of psychopaths in senior positions in politics and business.

3. Psychological (or spiritual) freedom

This is about conflict within the individual. Our desires are often contradictory; and sometimes there are demons hiding in one's background, waiting to finish business from long ago. Then there are patterns of expectation driving one to unsatisfactory aims, so that (e.g.) abused children often seek to start families of their own, long before they are capable of nurturing a child emotionally.

If you accept the insights of psychologists and prophets, failure to sort out the mess at this level sometimes results in drives and disasters at levels 2 and 3. Think of Citizen Kane and "Rosebud".

In this context it will be interesting to hear what Russell Brand has to say in his BBC Three TV documentary tomorrow. He is often seen as a poster-boy for indulgence, but actually is now an advocate for abstinence and for analysing one's reasons for wishing to indulge.

But this is about more than consumption-desires. Many of us (most? all?) are a mass of scores trying to be settled, patterns trying for completion, the expectations of family, friends or society, or unrealistic aspirations for ideal iconic life-moments that end forever with credits and closing music.

Contradiction: the fractured individual is afraid to be healed. Change is a kind of death. Creative people often fear that they could lose their motive force - e.g. Roald Dahl as reported by his daughter Tessa:

He hated the idea of therapy, analysis or psychiatry, as he said all his friends – Lillian Hellman, Dashiell Hammett and the rest – ‘could never write after they had had all their nooks and crannies flattened like pancakes’. He was convinced that drugs were the answer (they didn’t flatten you like a pancake?). I believe he did not want to face his inner demons. So he told Anna to medicate me instead.

As the prophet Mohammed said (and he is far from the only one to say something like it), "Holy is the warrior who is at war with himself", i.e. who is this "I" and why does it want this thing?

But if the "I" is enigmatic, self-contradictory, untrustworthy and potentially destructive to self and others, by what shall we regulate our lives?

So we could get to another contradiction: voluntary submission. "To enter in these bonds is to be free," said Donne, enjoying the contradiction. The doctor and sometime Spectator contributor "Theodore Dalrymple" has more than once had prisoners tell him they prefer being "inside", where they don't have to make decisions. Round and round we go, like the worm Ouroboros. But surely here is where we begin.

I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Revolutionary government scheme for schools

Following the DfEE's comprehensive review of education for 5 - 16 year olds, Michael Gove today announced a root and branch reform of the school system.

"We accept that Local Authorities will have a role to play for some years yet," said the Education Secretary, "but we must make some major changes now."

Inspired by the closing celebration of the 2012 Olympics, the plan is that all schools will fall into one of the following five "Spice Academy" categories:

1. Posh School



These will be well-established private "heritage" foundations, aimed primarily at restocking the governing and senior administrative and judicial classes, the BBC, Courtauld Institute traitors etc.


2. Sporty School




Private schools focusing on the production of "good eggs": clubbable fellows who will be reliable Number Twos in hierarchical organisations, or hard-working members of lesser professions such as mid-level accountancy and land valuation.

3. Scary School



Quirky, idiosyncratic academies for creatives and misfits, combining fee-paying with scholarships. Additional funding available under the new Special Needs provisions.

4. Baby School


Publicly-funded primaries for those who want a school within easy pram-push of home. Teachers will be selected for their physical and mental robustness, and given rudimentary martial arts training. Foreign nationals preferred, for low-salary reasons and also because there is less likelihood of them knowing what the children are calling them.

5. Ginger School



"Hot work" comprehensives for graduates of Category 4. All pupils will have individual access to their own PC and a graduated suite of online war simulations as rewards for producing any work, or for staying in the classroom. The cost of higher payscales for secondary teachers will be offset by the reduced chance of surviving to pension age.

"There should be something in that lot for everybody," said Mr Gove.

Gold manipulation?


 
Is it unreasonable of me to suspect a pattern here, of an obvious demand for gold being disguised by jerky-but-doomed market interventions? 

Does Russell Brand make sense?

Russell Brand appears to think:

1. There is no such thing as addiction. Anyone can give up, as he has.

2. It is for the consuming individual only, to decide whether the substance abuse is a problem.

Is he correct, or is he sending "mixed messages"?

Freedom issue: big business is NOT the opposite of big government

I bumped into an old friend and former colleague a couple of days ago. She's on loan as acting head to a school converting to Academy status.

Wiki:

Academies are intended to address the problem of entrenched failure within English schools with low academic achievement,[13] or schools situated in communities with few or no academic aspirations. Often these schools have been placed in "special measures", a term denoting a school that is "failing or likely to fail to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education".[14]

Academies are established in a way that is intended to be "creative" and "innovative" in order to give them the freedoms considered necessary to deal with the long-term issues they are intended to solve. Each academy has a private sponsor who can be an individual (such as Sir David Garrard, who sponsors Business Academy Bexley) or an organisation (such as the United Learning Trust or Amey plc).

My friend sees that part of the hidden agenda is to tear up teacher's contracts and save money by employing and bullying dull functionaries.

Before those who think themselves libertarians strop their hard hearts on this, may I ask them to pause and consider the liberty not just of the educational employees, but also of the students, and providers of instructional materials?

The excellent graphic site Cartoon Brew reveals interesting developments in America, where the chain of Art Institutes Colleges is beginning to show the true colours of large "private" enterprise. Last week's story was about forcing teachers to use certain texts:

Animation artist Mike Tracy claims that his school, the Art Institute of California—Orange County, judges teachers by another criteria: how many e-textbooks each teacher sells to their students.

Tracy, who has taught drawing and digital painting for eleven years at AIC—Orange County, felt that his class didn’t require the textbooks he was suddenly being asked to sell and told the school that he would prefer to teach without them. Tracy’s reward for working in the best interest of his cash-strapped, loan-burdened students was a termination notice from the school.

This week's is about preventing teachers from using other texts. Popular author Ed Hooks explains:

My book Acting for Animators was published late last year in a revised third edition by Routledge/London. Not too long after it came out, I received an e-mail from an Art Institute animation teacher in Texas. He told me that the headquarter of the AI schools, located in Pittsburgh, had established a new textbook policy. From then going forward, all text books must be e-books. No more hard or soft cover. He was worried that my book might not be available in e-book format, explaining that it was one he recommended to all of his AI students.

As it happened, Routledge was at that moment in between E-Book distributors. They were in the process of vetting a new one and expected to announce E-Book available for all of their titles shortly. I passed this positive message along to the teacher in Texas. [...] In the end, Routledge went with some other e-book distributor, and the man in Pittsburgh said he was sorry but that was that. It was out of his hands. No more Acting for Animators book at any of the Art Institutes. 

The Art Institutes chain is owned by the Education Management Corporation (why am I suddenly thinking of Robocop and the Omni Consumer Products corporation?). EMDC (as it likes to term itself) says:

Our schools are dedicated to giving students the skills, tools and confidence they need for a lifetime of success. From preparing graduates for their first, exciting foray into the business world to helping busy professionals broaden their career possibilities...

Who defines success, and how?

Business world... careers... I have this sense of square pegs being banged efficiently (and cost-effectively) into round holes; of the spiritual death of daily life in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Just wait until the British (sorry - Team GB, the nation that dares not speak its name) Government awards a major contract to, say, K12 (which my acting-head friend also mentioned).

There is no greater foe to liberty than the large corporate enterprise.

There should be some other term than "private enterprise" for a business over a certain size, so that lovers of liberty are not driven from Big Brother into the arms of Big Manager. The two work together - look at "Chinese" Murdoch.

When England was a nation of small shopkeepers, it was, perhaps not a free nation, but a more nearly free one than today's. And across the water, we are still fighting the intellectual heirs of Napoleon.

Yet in opposing the tyranny of associations of rich men, I am mischaracterized as illiberal. When, for example, I said that Prohibition was ended by big business, its captive unionised workforce and a big government that wanted more funds, and when Isuggested that "liberalisation" of intoxicants was a money-earner for governments and big business and a trap for individuals, I got not only sharp opposition but even - God knoweth how, as More said - calls for my voice to be banned from a liberal website.

My libertarian friends, think more carefully about liberty.

Otherwise, like the Diggers and Levellers of the English Revolution, like Mao's Hundred Flowers, like the oppressed peasants that Luther emboldened to revolt and that he then denounced and betrayed, you will be sold a tin with Liberty on the outside and Slavery within.

The modern chains may be encased in velvet, perfumed with heady mind-altering chemicals and (what subtlety and irony) sold to you with honeyed persuasions rather than wrapped round you by diktat, but you will find they are still very functional as chains, even if (particularly if) they are commercial chains.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Inflation-proof savings: "Social justice, social obligation"

I continue to pursue the issue of safe, inflation-proof deposits with my MP. So far I have had a scarcely credible response from a Treasury Lord, which I may publish sometime.

Meanwhile, note the complete change in the tenor of the debate since 1975.

At that time, when inflation was roaring (24.2% for that year), it was accepted that there was a moral obligation to protect savers. The limiting factor, as Joel Barnett made clear, was not to starve building societies of funds; that is hardly an objection today, when lending is in decline and the real problem is the shrinking value of collateral.

Now, it is pretended that the role of National Savings (& Investments, as it is known these days)  is to help the government with its own funding. That popular management word "target" raises its ugly head. "Social justice" and "certain social obligations" have no place in the modern debate - they think.

Hansard record of House of Commons debate, 10 July 1975:

Mr. Neubert
Does the Minister accept that the opportunity to invest in inflation-proof schemes is an act of belated social justice to millions of people who have seen their savings irreversibly damaged during the recent rapid rise in the rate of inflation? Will he make recompense to many of them by easing up on his vindictive attacks on the principle of savings embodied in the capital transfer tax and the wealth tax?

Mr. Barnett
The hon. Gentleman has put his supplementary question at the wrong time, because National Savings are rising very well at present. I am sure he will be delighted to hear that. As to what he called "belated social justice", I am sure he will pay due attention to the fact that the scheme was introduced by a Labour Government and not by a Conservative Government.

Is the Chief Secretary confident that a further extension of index-linked schemes—which are welcome to savers—will not cause a diversion of funds away from deposits with building societies, leading to a rise in the mortgage interest rate?

Mr. Barnett
We are, indeed, aware of those problems. That is precisely why we introduced the scheme in this limited way.
Hansard record of House of Lords debate, 4 November 1975:

Lord LEE of NEWTON
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while the index-linked schemes are extremely good value for money, it would be a good idea—as inflation has been rather rampant—to increase the maximum amount that can be invested in them?

Lord JACQUES
My Lords, the Government have two conflicting obligations. One is an obligation to the taxpayer to buy goods and services as economically as possible, and secondly there are certain social obligations. The Government believe that by the action they have taken they have got the right balance.

Daily Telegraph, 2 August 2012:
The Net Financing Target for 2012/13, released today, stands at £0, in a range of -£2bn to £2bn, and as such is too low for the NS&I to reinstate the popular Inflation Linked Savings Certificates.

Gill Stephens from NS&I said: “Over the Spending Review period (April 2011 to March 2015) our objective is to broadly balance inflows and outflows, subject to agreement with HM Treasury on each individual year’s target.”

Given the Target of £0, she admitted that the NS&I does “not anticipate reintroducing Index-linked Savings Certificates during this financial year.”
INVESTMENT DISCLOSURE: Mostly in cash (and index-linked National Savings Certificates), but now planning to build up some reserves of physical gold via regular saving.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content.

Inflation-proof savings: "Social justice, social obligation"

I continue to pursue the issue of safe, inflation-proof deposits with my MP. So far I have had a scarcely credible response from a Treasury Lord, which I may publish sometime.

Meanwhile, note the complete change in the tenor of the debate since 1975.

At that time, when inflation was roaring (24.2% for that year), it was accepted that there was a moral obligation to protect savers. The limiting factor, as Joel Barnett made clear, was not to starve building societies of funds; that is hardly an objection today, when lending is in decline and the real problem is the shrinking value of collateral.

Now, it is pretended that the role of National Savings (& Investments, as it is known these days)  is to help the government with its own funding. That popular management word "target" raises its ugly head. "Social justice" and "certain social obligations" have no place in the modern debate - they think.

Hansard record of House of Commons debate, 10 July 1975:

Mr. Neubert
Does the Minister accept that the opportunity to invest in inflation-proof schemes is an act of belated social justice to millions of people who have seen their savings irreversibly damaged during the recent rapid rise in the rate of inflation? Will he make recompense to many of them by easing up on his vindictive attacks on the principle of savings embodied in the capital transfer tax and the wealth tax?
Mr. Barnett
The hon. Gentleman has put his supplementary question at the wrong time, because National Savings are rising very well at present. I am sure he will be delighted to hear that. As to what he called "belated social justice", I am sure he will pay due attention to the fact that the scheme was introduced by a Labour Government and not by a Conservative Government.

Is the Chief Secretary confident that a further extension of index-linked schemes—which are welcome to savers—will not cause a diversion of funds away from deposits with building societies, leading to a rise in the mortgage interest rate?
Mr. Barnett
We are, indeed, aware of those problems. That is precisely why we introduced the scheme in this limited way.
Hansard record of House of Lords debate, 4 November 1975:

Lord LEE of NEWTON
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while the index-linked schemes are extremely good value for money, it would be a good idea—as inflation has been rather rampant—to increase the maximum amount that can be invested in them?
Lord JACQUES
My Lords, the Government have two conflicting obligations. One is an obligation to the taxpayer to buy goods and services as economically as possible, and secondly there are certain social obligations. The Government believe that by the action they have taken they have got the right balance.

Daily Telegraph, 2 August 2012:
The Net Financing Target for 2012/13, released today, stands at £0, in a range of -£2bn to £2bn, and as such is too low for the NS&I to reinstate the popular Inflation Linked Savings Certificates.

Gill Stephens from NS&I said: “Over the Spending Review period (April 2011 to March 2015) our objective is to broadly balance inflows and outflows, subject to agreement with HM Treasury on each individual year’s target.”

Given the Target of £0, she admitted that the NS&I does “not anticipate reintroducing Index-linked Savings Certificates during this financial year.”

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Is there enough cash to support the markets?

I was struck by comments on King World News from Egon von Greyerz of Matterhorn Asset Management, regarding global asset allocation:

Right now the world’s assets are about $150 trillion. Of that number, $60 trillion is in cash, $40 trillion is in bonds, and $40 trillion is in stocks. But, remarkably, only $2 trillion or just a bit over 1% is in gold.

In chart form, this is what that looks like:



That looks like a lot of cash to me.

In our developed economies, it's said that only some 3% of total "money" is in the form of notes and coins, so as long as there's enough electrons to whizz round the wires the system can operate.

Where does the rest go?

In poorer countries, presumably more money is in tangible form; but worldwide there must be a lot lying fairly idle in bank accounts, daydreaming about whether it's a wave or a particle.

From that, two further questions occur to me:

1. Government deposit protection schemes have fairly low limits (from a rich person's perspective), and many banks are thought to be very shaky. Where do the rich park their cash? Is there a select group of supersafe banks, and if so, details please.

2. Some investors - such as John Burford - are waiting like trapdoor spiders for a major market decline, so they can rush out with the cash in their war chest and grab assets at bargain prices. But if there are hordes of people like him, but with zillions more to play with, then potentially there's so much support that we won't see a crash happen for long enough for ordinary investors to get in. Instead, there'll be a lot of fast trading and large sums will be won or lost on fleeting and marginal differences in a thin market. In other words, something like what is happening already.

There's another aspect that may have altered the character of the markets, which is the growth in wealth inequality.

When a small fraction of the populace owns most of the financial assets, it's running out of middle-class suckers to fleece. As the supply of victims dries up, there is little incentive to participate in the market; and if one has enough wealth, one doesn't need to surrender much of it to pay the bills.

So unless the wealthy are addicted to gambling, I'd expect them to let their portfolios quieten down; in fact, they're probably wondering why their investment managers are charging quite as much as they do, and whether they really have to keep turning over the money and incurring dealing charges and fees each time.

Besides, there's more fun ways to gamble. Oz billionaire Kerry Packer is said to have challenged a Texan millionaire double or quits on the latter's entire $60 million fortune, on the toss of a coin. Whether he'd have offered the challenge on the basis of risking all his own, I can't say.

INVESTMENT DISCLOSURE: Mostly in cash (and index-linked National Savings Certificates), but now planning to build up some reserves of physical gold via regular saving.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content.

Is there enough cash to support the markets?

I was struck by comments on King World News from Egon von Greyerz of Matterhorn Asset Management, regarding global asset allocation:

Right now the world’s assets are about $150 trillion. Of that number, $60 trillion is in cash, $40 trillion is in bonds, and $40 trillion is in stocks. But, remarkably, only $2 trillion or just a bit over 1% is in gold.

In chart form, this is what that looks like:



That looks like a lot of cash to me.

In our developed economies, it's said that only some 3% of total "money" is in the form of notes and coins, so as long as there's enough electrons to whizz round the wires the system can operate.

Where does the rest go?

In poorer countries, presumably more money is in tangible form; but worldwide there must be a lot lying fairly idle in bank accounts, daydreaming about whether it's a wave or a particle.

From that, two further questions occur to me:

1. Government deposit protection schemes have fairly low limits (from a rich person's perspective), and many banks are thought to be very shaky. Where do the rich park their cash? Is there a select group of supersafe banks, and if so, details please.

2. Some investors - such as John Burford - are waiting like trapdoor spiders for a major market decline, so they can rush out with the cash in their war chest and grab assets at bargain prices. But if there are hordes of people like him, but with zillions more to play with, then potentially there's so much support that we won't see a crash happen for long enough for ordinary investors to get in. Instead, there'll be a lot of fast trading and large sums will be won or lost on fleeting and marginal differences in a thin market. In other words, something like what is happening already.

There's another aspect that may have altered the character of the markets, which is the growth in wealth inequality.

When a small fraction of the populace owns most of the financial assets, it's running out of middle-class suckers to fleece. As the supply of victims dries up, there is little incentive to participate in the market; and if one has enough wealth, one doesn't need to surrender much of it to pay the bills.

So unless the wealthy are addicted to gambling, I'd expect them to let their portfolios quieten down; in fact, they're probably wondering why their investment managers are charging quite as much as they do, and whether they really have to keep turning over the money and incurring dealing charges and fees each time.

Besides, there's more fun ways to gamble. Oz billionaire Kerry Packer is said to have challenged a Texan millionaire double or quits on the latter's entire $60 million fortune, on the toss of a coin. Whether he'd have offered the challenge on the basis of risking all his own, I can't say.

INVESTMENT DISCLOSURE: Mostly in cash (and index-linked National Savings Certificates), but now planning to build up some reserves of physical gold via regular saving.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content.

Is there enough cash to support the markets?

I was struck by comments on King World News from Egon von Greyerz of Matterhorn Asset Management, regarding global asset allocation:

Right now the world’s assets are about $150 trillion. Of that number, $60 trillion is in cash, $40 trillion is in bonds, and $40 trillion is in stocks. But, remarkably, only $2 trillion or just a bit over 1% is in gold.

In chart form, this is what that looks like:



That looks like a lot of cash to me.

In our developed economies, it's said that only some 3% of total "money" is in the form of notes and coins, so as long as there's enough electrons to whizz round the wires the system can operate.

Where does the rest go?

In poorer countries, presumably more money is in tangible form; but worldwide there must be a lot lying fairly idle in bank accounts, daydreaming about whether it's a wave or a particle.

From that, two further questions occur to me:

1. Government deposit protection schemes have fairly low limits (from a rich person's perspective), and many banks are thought to be very shaky. Where do the rich park their cash? Is there a select group of supersafe banks, and if so, details please.

2. Some investors - such as John Burford - are waiting like trapdoor spiders for a major market decline, so they can rush out with the cash in their war chest and grab assets at bargain prices. But if there are hordes of people like him, but with zillions more to play with, then potentially there's so much support that we won't see a crash happen for long enough for ordinary investors to get in. Instead, there'll be a lot of fast trading and large sums will be won or lost on fleeting and marginal differences in a thin market. In other words, something like what is happening already.

There's another aspect that may have altered the character of the markets, which is the growth in wealth inequality.

When a small fraction of the populace owns most of the financial assets, it's running out of middle-class suckers to fleece. As the supply of victims dries up, there is little incentive to participate in the market; and if one has enough wealth, one doesn't need to surrender much of it to pay the bills.

So unless the wealthy are addicted to gambling, I'd expect them to let their portfolios quieten down; in fact, they're probably wondering why their investment managers are charging quite as much as they do, and whether they really have to keep turning over the money and incurring dealing charges and fees each time.

Besides, there's more fun ways to gamble. Oz billionaire Kerry Packer is said to have challenged a Texan millionaire double or quits on the latter's entire $60 million fortune, on the toss of a coin. Whether he'd have offered the challenge on the basis of risking all his own, I can't say.

INVESTMENT DISCLOSURE: Mostly in cash (and index-linked National Savings Certificates), but now planning to build up some reserves of physical gold via regular saving.

DISCLAIMER: Nothing here should be taken as personal advice, financial or otherwise. No liability is accepted for third-party content.