Tuesday, June 27, 2006

I value your input, really I do

It is not a bad column this week; it is well written (in particular, the phrase "harnessing a genuine tragedy to the writer's own rather pathetic set of grievances" is one I shall surely plagiarise somewhere down the line). And there is an element of validity to the concept of having a go at the Top Gear crowd. But the trouble is that, as is the norm for Aaro columns, the specific sensible point is expanded into a slightly sinister general point about politics. Comments follow.

Here's a funny thing; when Dave is writing about something in the Guardian, he refers to it by name. The "Local Paper" he is talking about this time round is, I think, the Ham & High, so why not say so? Is this a stylebook issue to avoid annoying the non-London readers of the Times (I thought it was only Guardian readers who get all gassy when journalists mention that they live in the city where the newspaper is published). Or what?

The Ham & High has been running a jihad on parking of late, however; the Camden New Journal hasn't though and unless I am mistaken there aren't any other papers local to Dave except maybe the Camden Gazette, but that is just an advertising freesheet these days[2] But anyway, the real issue here is not so much the fact that boy racer estate agents are full of it, but more that Dave has used this as an excuse to return to a central theme (also beloved of John Lloyd); what unrelenting bastards we, the people are, and how we really don't deserve those paragons who selflessly deign to rule us.

A bit more background first; the prominence of parking in the Ham & High of late is not really just a strange fixation of the editors. Camden Council was actually lost by Labour in the last local elections, you'll recall, and parking enforcement was probably not a trivial local issue. Tom Conti actually took out an advert in the Ham & High about it, and I was certainly leafleted by a non-partisan "Parkers' Rights" group urging me to vote anyone-but-Labour on parking issues. Practically the first action of the Lib Dem/Tory coalition that is now in charge in Judd Street was to abolish wheelclamping from the borough. I just mention these things so that we are all on the same page; I think Dave's piece loses a bit from this lack of Camden-specific context; in particular, there was quite strong local feeling that the enforcement of residents' parking regimes was very draconian and that wheelclamps were overused (in particular, the wheelclamping product is higher-margin for the clampers than the simple ticket).

So anyway, onward. The political sting in this col is in the last five paragraphs and I don't agree with them. Dave is dead wrong in his claim that people don't want to be involved in local issues except for selfish reasons. I have never experienced the problem he describes of "nobody but the same half dozen parents responding" and I am not far from him either geographically or sociodemographically. Also, he is ignoring the fact that Camden Council under New Labour developed a very nasty habit indeed of running wholly bogus consultation exercises. Most famously (and this probably contributed more to Labour's loss than parking, losing it the entire Gospel Oak ward which was Aaro's old manor) there was the issue of the Arms' Length Management Organisation for the council housing stock. It was a microcosm of the EU constitution referendum, and the various other issues on which we the people have been promised a say, provided that we don't abuse this privilege by saying the wrong thing. Locally, we have also been treated to a fantastically poor-faith exercise in consultation over a couple of swimming pools, the redevelopment of Camden Market, and a bunch of other issues. Including, of course, more or less every parking and traffic calming scheme in the borough over the last few years (I'd note that the demographics of Camden have shifted along with the rest of inner London over time, so it is hardly surprising that the street furniture demanded by the residents of 20 years ago may not be considered optimal by the residents of now).

Aaro is dead wrong about the roots of our cynicism about our rulers. The media's portrayal of them as venial is an effect, not a cause. Nor do we make particularly "hypocritical" demands of them. What the problem is, is that we have spent the last ten years facing a government which made a huge deal of wanting to "listen", and then not listening. Do I have to bring up the subject of those two million people in Hyde Park? No, but I think I will anyway. This is the point that Rory Bremner et al keep making and the only reason it isn't as funny as it used to be is that it's been going on for so long.

There are two problems facing Aaro's political views here. First, for a man saying "perhaps we should be forced to live more directly with the consequences of our decision-making", he is notably not keen on having politicians forced to face the consequences of their decision making. And second, nobody is ever going to trust " citizens’ juries, who can hear all the facts and then decide on the complicated question of, say, whether the discomfort of motorists is more important than the lives of children" so long as they are being proposed by the Aaronovist tendency in modern "progressive" politics, because everyone correctly suspects that "citizens' juries" of this sort will have about as much ability to get anything done as the average Sixth-Form Council.

[1] I voted in their online poll about "What is the most important issue for the new Camden Council to reform or review?" Parking was a narrow fourth out of six with 12.8% of the vote; the options were "Crime" (38%) "Council Tax" (29%), "Planning Matters" (13%), "Council Housing" (4%) and "ASBOs" (3%).
[2] Before its sad decline, the CG had a wonderful parking-related headline though; when two residents' bays were removed outside the Jewish Museum on the (perhaps somewhat excitable) advice of the Met last year after the 7/7 bombings, they flashed "TERRORISTS DEFEATED … BY DOUBLE YELLOW LINES".

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Nuclear recycling

Nick is off again about CND's alleged cheerleading of Iran's nuclear programme. There's not really that much to say, apart from to observe that this is more shameless recycling both of his own earlier material (New Statesman) and stuff from HP-Sauce (David T on CIF on the 22nd). Here's Nick from last December:

Iranians went to the conference to protest. CND stewards threw them out when they heckled the ambassador, just as Labour party conference stewards threw out CND’s Walter Wolfgang when he heckled Jack Straw the previous month.

and from today:

Iranian dissidents, who oppose the theocracy's drive to get the bomb, turned up to protest. CND stewards threw out the hecklers just as Labour party conference stewards had thrown out CND's Walter Wolfgang when he heckled Jack Straw the previous month.

Does he have a macro to do this, or does he retype the sentences. Who cares?

Of course there is the small matter of substance. Nick tells us:

On the other, we have an 'anti-nuclear movement' that is against Britain being a nuclear power, but not Iran.

But is it true?

Well, not according to CND themselves, in the document to which Bruschetta Boy referred him following his NS article (God this is getting repetitive), which states clearly:

CND opposes both the use of force against Iran and any acquisition of nuclear weapons capabilities by Iran.

Nick: do your homework, and write some new material.

Friday, June 23, 2006

all power to the grammar schools

Nick, back in 2003.

Power is New Labour's first concern: how to hold to hold on to power, how to expand power and how to crush rival centres of power... what is at stake is the ability to check an over-mighty government.

Nick, in the New Statesman just now.

Compass was founded by former special advisers and workers for the leftish think-tanks that had once believed in Tony Blair. Although disillusioned, they retained the belief that you can’t change anything without winning power. And that was good to see, too.

Well, we all have our encounters with realipolitik. But as I understand it, the first rule of that particular genre is not to confuse your own hobbyhorses, pet causes and assorted twitches and jerks with the business of getting and keeping it. And this is where the problem starts. Here Nick lays out a question the Labour Party really needs to ask to do to retain hold of this commodity:

For how long will liberal leftists deploy cultural relativism to excuse the sexism, blood lust, homophobia and racism of the Islamist far right?

Well yes, spot on. That’ll get ‘em streaming to the polls. In other news, the latest manifestation of Nick’s grammar school obsession relates to the fact that there are now apparently more public schoolchildren in the media than ever. Like the good middle class grammar school Oxbridge boy he is, Nick thinks that this is why New Labour’s manifest achievements don’t get fair coverage; because the media are simply too rich to care about all those poor people in places where poor people live, up beyond the formerly smoky horizon, places like like, errrr, wheresit, oh yeah, Tyne and Wear, that’s it…

It seems to me that since Nick had his conversion experience, he’s generally lost interest in the world, or at least that large part of it that exists outside the conduct of the greatest intellectual struggle of our time. The basic man emerges by default, along with his basic prejudices, blind spots, obsessions and mental hangnails. Nick constantly recycles articles and revisits pet obsessions. He seems to have reverted to a state where he just relies on instinctual resentments, perhaps including that of a middle class Oxbridge student from the provinces who was less well connected than his peers, and who had to get his start in journalism on a provincial paper in Birmingham.

It seems to me that Nick was right the first time. The fact that there seems to be nothing to Labour anymore but tabloid chasing and the squalid court politics of the Blair Brown succession indicates that there never was much more to it than the getting and keeping of power, and that this is what happens when everything else falls out of view. But then, somethinbg similar happens when you become obsessed with the greatest intellectual struggle of our time.

rioja kid

Thursday, June 22, 2006

No, it's just powdered sugar round my mouth

(the title above is the punchline to a joke about a doughnut eating penguin with a broken-down car, and is preceded by the question "have you blown a seal?")

It's not on the Web yet, but Nick's Standard col yesterday had a main item about how unfair it is that Scotland recieves more government subsidies than it pays out in taxes and is thus subsidised by England (or "London", since it's the Standard). Ping! goes another seal of Dacre I think, because it was followed with "and this will be an electoral disaster because the English are obsessed with fairness, so we will get the Tories back".

FWIW, here are the three reasons that the Jocks get net transfers from London:

1. They are on average poorer, and the tax and benefit system is still at least partly progressive.
2. It shuts up the Nationalists.
3. There is the small matter of all that oil we stole from them.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Eton Manifesto (sorry about that one)

Dave writes a piece on public school and privilege without mentioning the grammar schools! See, it can be done, apparently. It's actually rather good stuff. I think it might have been a bit better if he had noted that the Etonians aren't the only big network that operates in the world; there are a fair number of Old Communists hanging around and although I doubt that there are all that many women who fetishise sleeping with them, there are quite a few of them in prominent positions. I have no information as to whether the fact that his father was Sam Aaronovitch has ever helped Dave in his career, but I would think it rather odd if it hadn't.

Of course the truly radical point of view would be that the bad thing is that there are so many positions of exalted power and reward, not that the golden tickets are shared out in this way rather than that way. But it would be a bit churlish to get all Rise of the Meritocracy on Dave's ass; this was quite a good piece and there are far worse sinners on that account.

By the way and for what it's worth, I'm guessing that when Dave says "average gross annual earnings" are £23,400, he is referring to annual gross pay in the ONS survey of hours and earnings. This is a defensible measure, but people do receive benefits (including child benefit), self employment income, interest and property income, and households with children usually have more than one wage-earner these days meaning that average per capita income is more like £34,000. Also it is per capita rather than per household and refers to the UK as a whole; for England the number is more like £24,000. This is nitpicking though; it doesn't really affect the point that Eton is bloody expensive and in many ways, kudos to Dave for bothering to pick through the frustratingly incomprehensible ONS website at all.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Nick on equal pay and the courts

Nick's Observer latest is a slight curiosity. It could be a big story, but it probably isn't. The story centres around a solicitor in the north-east who has upset the unions (specifically the GMB) by getting an industrial tribunal to rule against the union for agreeing a deal with Middlesbrough that awarded some workers less that their legal entitlements. Now a lot probably hangs on the details of the case. Did the union collude with the council? Were they negligent, etc.? We don't get any of this from Nick's article, merely the suggestion that should the case stand unions will be required by law to sue employers at every available opportunity (or risk being sued themselves). Breakfastime discussion in the Cabernet household suggests that the tribunal's decision will be rejected by the courts on appeal, as contrary to the public interest. Those qualified to offer a legal opinion are invited to do so in comments.

Drown, you fuckers! Islingtonians don't care

The moral of Nick's latest Evening Standard piece is that it pays to be the right kind of third world peasant. Or, at least, it would pay if there were any actual payoff to be had from Nick's "support". If you're unfortunate enough to be a Bangladeshi from a low-lying area, don't come looking for Nick for help. Global warming may be threatening your very existence, but Nick thinks that "Worrying about the planet is a lifestyle option for those who don’t have to worry about money." (People like Guardian columnist George Monbiot.) If, on the other hand, you are (un)fortunate enough to be a Darfurian threatened with death by machete, then Nick is on the case of those who unaccountably fail to mention your plight (in this instance an Anglican vicar at an exhibition about Anne Frank).

Incidentally, why is the Euston Manifesto silent on global warming? It won't do to say that they can't be expected to cover everything since (a) it matters a lot and (b) they manage to get round to open source software. Can it be because Nick and Norm think that worrying about the planet is a bit of self-indulgence for toffs? Or is it just that they number among their supporters and signatories a whole raft of global warming sceptics (including many American conservatives)?

Friday, June 16, 2006


Reading Dave's Indian posts one after another (links to come shortly; Aaroblog is currently not only not working but crashing Internet Explorer for me for some reason), there is a strong feeling of an absence of "there" there. Dave goes here, he goes there, he tries to get all excited about the dawn of neoliberalism in India, but somehow things don't rise to meet expectations and he is left saying to the Times readership "sorry, this has never happened to me before, maybe we can try again in a few minutes".

The trouble is that doing the Thomas Friedman bit is harder than it looks for a journalist with even a little bit of ethical standards. The Airmiles thesis is to blow in, interview a couple of CEOs, explain in short words and mixed metaphors what demigods they are, and assert that this, not the tired old leftyism of the past, is going to uplift the rural poor and turn India into the nice bit of San Jose, all before you can say sag paneer. In order to do this, though, you have to be very careful to ignore what the guys you're talking to are actually saying, because what they're usually actually saying is that the rural poor can fuck off. The neoliberal theory of development that Aaro was presumably sent out there to find evidence for is ably summed up in James Tobin's poem:

The poor complain
They always do
But that's just idle chatter
Our system brings rewards to all
(at least, to all who matter)

And well, Aaro doesn't quite yet have the slickness that lets him skate over it all at high speed, nor does he have the instinctive belief of an American journalist that simply by being from a capitalist country gives you a genetic understanding of how to do economics, like black people have rhythm. Add to that a likely small dose of "India Shock" (which is like Stendhal Syndrome except with squalor and shit instead of High Renaissance architecture), and he is left trying to take in the unique strangeness of Indian political and economic life, in a week. I think it's because of this that the three Aaro/India pieces don't really work; there are a couple of good bits of writing in them, but overall they just read like "he said this, she said that, will this do". There is no conclusion and they badly lack any sort of narrative arc. At the heart of this is the fact that Dave really can't do economics (I reiterate that the LSE does a good summer school on this Dave if you're reading, it is interesting and the Times ought to pay up for it). But it is interesting (Aaro is always interesting) to look at the economics in the piece for precisely this reason; I suspect that through the filter of Aaro, we are hearing the authentic voice of the Indian entrepreneur class.

On the face of it, it sounds like garden-variety airport lounge neoliberalism, the sort that you can order by the yard from the Economist Intelligence Unit or any of a zillion consultancies. But actually, if you look at it hard and remember that it is not really coming from the same place, you can see that in the version of Globollocks that Aaro is bringing home from India (to where I believe it was initially exported by Will Hutton; this is my pet theory that the roots of a lot of Decentism can be found in the 1990s Observer), there is a very central role for "investment" which does not really fit into the model.

Recall that "investment" in the neoliberal lexicon basically means buying shares. For a supply side economist, there is no need for a theory of investment because they work on a version of Say's Law; supply creates its own demand, so the investment rate is just the profit rate minus the consumption of the entrepreneur. The only interesting thing about investment for a thoroughgoing free markets type is that the rate of capital taxation will determine the entrepreneur's incentive to reinvest rather than consume from profits, and this is basically all there is to supply-side capital theory.

On the other hand, in the Keynesian tradition, investment demand is the engine of the whole theory, and the determinants of investment demand are very complicated and unclear because they relate to the opportunity cost of liquidity, the state of technology, the profit rate and, of course, long term expectations aka "animal spirits".

So, for someone coming from a broadly Left tradition who has been through all the debates about "underinvestment" in the 1970s, who has read "The Economist" magazine for a while but who doesn't have much formal economics education, it's easy to get into a state of some confusion. This is the state of someone who knows that "investment" is a jolly important thing, and, that (per the neoliberal literature) it is carried out by mysterious people called "investors" of whom we know little except that they read the Wall Street Journal and have very right wing politics, but not much more.

This is not dissimilar to the state of a South Sea Islander who knows that metal fishing hooks and tinned food are called "cargo", that cargo arrives on aeroplanes and that aeroplanes don't land unless they can see landing lights and a flight controller. Cargo Cult Keynesianism is the official economic philosophy of a lot of neoliberals who don't buy the whole supply side bill of goods, but who nevertheless want to feel like they're on the right side of history when it comes to "globalisation" and "free markets".

I call it Cargo Cult Keynesianism, because the usual policy approach of this kind of commentator is that they suggest all manner of deregulations, privatisations, liberalisations, dismantling of trade unions, etc etc ad nauseam. They do this not because of any real belief that these laissez-faire policies are sensible things to do, or in the third world context, whether they respect a sensible sequencing strategy, but because doing neo-liberal looking things will "attract investors". So you have to raise interest rates in a recession to "attract investors". There is no pressing fiscal or efficiency argument for privatising a water utility, but privatising it will send the right message to "investors". Cutting government spending is necessary because it is the sort of thing investors want to see.

Italy had a real case of CCK in the early Berlusconi years, when the politicians vied with one another to see who could display the most anglosassonismo. Peru had a particularly bad case of it, electing Fujimori largely on the basis that his surname would attract Japanese investors. It seems that India's got it now; Aaro's only real argument for further massive neoliberal reform is that to slow the pace of change would risk scaring the "investors" (he also repeats the hoary old fallacy that the Indian growth boom started in 1991 with a big neoliberal package; it didn't, it started in the 1980s under the old system).

At times of crisis, even the International Monetary Fund resorts to CCK, (Paul Krugman noticed this as early as 1998). But it's a bad theory of economics; there is really very little evidence that the animal spirits of investors are materially stimulated by enacting the rituals of an "investor-friendly" government, or that foreign capital is a prerequisite for development, or that the benefits of this investment are so great as to outweigh the often very large short-term costs. It is, on the other hand, not difficult to see why it appeals to Aaro. We've noted so very many times in the past that Dave is in thrall to a fundamentally aesthetic politics which he calls "liberal optimism" and we make unkind remarks about being rooted in the Pritikin Institute. The whole tenor of modern Aaronovism is the belief that "dynamism" (I have commented in the past that "dynamic" is a word that people use in economic contexts to mean "good" when they don't know what they're talking about) and change for change's sake are the requirements of the modern world, and Cargo Cult Keynesianism provides him with an economic policy to match his political philosophy. Even better, it has come to him out of the mouths of rich people in poor countries.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

The leftie that didn't cheer in the night

Bashing the rich is pretty much staple Nick-of-old. Here at egalitarian Aarowatch you won't find too many complaints. But a bit of petty carping won't do any harm. Nick commends the use of statistics to illustrate the problem, but then restricts himself largely to information drawn from last Monday's Evening Standard. He also fails to distinguish adequately between wealth and income, so his phrases about the top 1 or 2 per cent are meaningless. My guess is that, in income terms, Nick's own household is in the top 1 or 2 per cent. Still, he can check for himself by using the IFS's handy calculator of these things. But moving on to matters where I actually disagree with him on the substance (or where it's hard to tell) ....

Internment without trial for suspected terrorists? (Perhaps like the two chaps released without charge in Forest Gate this week?) Is Nick for or against? Well he doesn't tell us. What he says is that there's a split within the establishment which will be resolved in favour of internment as soon as psychopathic Islamists manage to kill enough people. Which he expects they will. There's also his worrying reference to the fact that, unlike Americans, Europeans don't believe themselves to be in a state of war. Well I'm going to stick my neck out on this one and say that the Europeans are basically right about this, and that Americans who think otherwise are wrong. Having sat in a Wisconsin hotel room last year and watched John "Professor of Torture" Yoo, rhetorically steamroller critics of Guantanamo with "we are at war" talk, I think it's best avoided. Since Nick's column is published on the morning when three suicides have been reported in Guantanamo, he didn't pick the best moment to intimate that the Bush administration's response to terror is preferable to that of Euro-judges. I also seem to remember that our least big experiment with interning terrorist suspects was rather strongly counterproductive, maybe Nick has forgotten.

Finally, on to Nick's finger-point of the day, which concerns how people responded to the death of Al-Zarqawi:

The real question is not why so few people cried on the news of Zarqawi's death, but why so few cheered. The answer will take the liberal-left a long time to live down.

I remember cheering when General Franco died, and I expect to cheer when Mrs T finally kicks the bucket, but, Franco aside, actual cheering has been pretty much absent. Only a nutty single-issue obsessive of the type Nick has become would think that the alleged not-cheering of the left was "the real question". Sad.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Airmiles Aaro?

About a week ago, I noted that Aaro was in India and expressed the profound hope that he was there to do something about Muslim/Hindu tensions, rather than to do a poor man's Thomas "Airmiles" Friedman globollocks piece.

A cursory glance at "Growing confidence shows in investment and returns" reveals that I did not get my wish. Oh dear. More to come ...

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Help! I'm a prisoner in an Evening Standard column factory!

The main bit of Nick's Standard col today actually bears quite a lot of arguing against, and I hope that someone else will take it on if I don't get the time. But the little joke items are quite funny; on first glance, they all appear to have been written by that part of Nick's subconscious which is begging to be let out of the Euston Manifesto Group. Thus:

If you want to change the world by fighting for homosexual rights and compassionate treatment for the handicapped, do it and I’ll be with you. But don’t duck out of the struggle by falling for the lazy belief that you can change the world by changing language

("or in other words, Amnesty not calling a gulag a gulag won't stop it from being one")

As I looked at the audience, I realised it was getting what it couldn’t get elsewhere. Not even Radio 2 plays much Motown these days. Nor does it play much Sinatra, which is why there’s a Rat Pack show at the Savoy. Nor does the BBC put on left wing ‘Play for the Days,’ which is why Sir David Hare and his kind churn out political dramas which never challenge their liberal audiences’ prejudices. Niche marketing has its place, but can’t we be more ambitious?

("how many signatures? Is the next Euston Manifesto group meeting more likely to be held in the Cambridge Theatre or in a phone box?")

THE ONE thing journalists enjoy above all else is mocking the sports’ desk. Obviously, we have to use words of only one syllable and speak very, very slowly or they wouldn’t understand us, but it is worth the effort because no one gets it wrong as thoroughly and regularly as football correspondents.

(this just writes itself)

more later I hope ....

Monday, June 05, 2006

Meow! Back in the knife box Miss Sharp!

I almost missed Aaro's latest dispatch from the road on "Not Being Allowed to See the Da Vinci Code". If you're reading this Aaro, the reason that some Muslims would consider the DVC blasphemous is that it contradicts the Bible, which under some interpretations of Islam has to be considered a sacred text; not as sacred as the Koran obviously but sacred enough to make it blasphemous to disagree with it. I didn't think that fundies of that water were common in India though so I suspect that Dave is right that they're just abnning it because life is fucking dull as a religious elder in India so you grab your chance to make headlines when it arrives.

Meanwhile, Aaro really is getting to grips with this blogging thing; he's run out of ideas so he's inviting people to name films they like and hate in order to tide the comments section over during a dull patch (running competitions to name the Seven Seals of Dacre or create nicknames for Alan Johnson is a completely different thing, naturally). The "censoring films for being stupid" thing is so transparently a comment-generating ploy that I'm not going to bother to read any wider political significance into it.

But then we get this ... zinger at the end:

Should posters want to assign movies they have seen to the banned and unbanned categories, it would be a complete waste of their time and (vide Catherine Bennett) a sure sign of their male inadequacy. But then, when did Catherine ever find anybody adequate? It might be fun, though.

You are not, not telling me that this one isn't personal. When did Catherine find somebody adequate Dave? When? When? Tease.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

A column so good, he sold it twice

Nick has once more written a column on whether the public is getting value for money from public services. But do the rags that pay Nick to recycle the same old stuff over and over again get value for money? Well I guess it is their money, but if I were paying I'd be asking some questions.

Nick's latest, from the Observer, is largely a rewrite of a column from the New Statesman of only three weeks ago. There are, however, some minor differences. Back then, Nick wrote:

Computing was astonished by the failure of Choose and Book, becausethere is no real difference between booking a hospital bed online and booking a flight. Yet I doubt if the DoH’s advisers recommended going to either easyJet.com or lastminute.com and buying and adapting their programs.

Nick must now think that this was too simple. (Does he read Aarowatch?)

As an astonished writer for Computing magazine said: 'This is bog-standard business technology. This is simple stuff, but they just can't get it to work.' To be fair to the NHS, booking beds in a hospital isn't quite as simple as booking a flight with easyJet. A hospital has to assess who needs treatment and who can wait, while airlines make no distinctions between their passengers.

Elsewhere, Nick has a go at Lord Stevens over his Di investigation and at Channels 4 and 5 for promoting game shows that pander to the lowest common denominator. As someone who takes a small professional interest in decision theory, I've rather enjoyed those episodes of Deal or No Deal I've tuned into. But perhaps I should take Nick's advice and restrict my viewing to "serious news and drama".