Tuesday, December 20, 2011

I've Moved to Wordpress

Might still publish the occasional larger piece here, but my routine blogging is now to be found here on Wordpress

Many moons past, one of my earlier readers gently tried to nudge me into daily blogging even if only a line or two. I always found blogspot to awkward for that. Stumbleupon made it simple and then, back in September, they threw their toys out of the pram and forced thousands of us serious bloggers to migrate. I have to say, now, that they did us a big favour. The Wordpress blogging experience combines the simplicity of the Stumbling version with much better editing tools and cleaner presentation.

be seeing you...

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Time We Hung Parliament

I have rarely been so disengaged from the political fairy story we call a "General Election"

Like the election of a new Pope, it has no relevance to me or mine. Nobody represents me. Nor could they ever. Not least because I'm a democrat who actually understands what that means and all the potential candidates demonstrate, just by standing for election, that they obviously don't.

What elections are about is persuading "We The People" to consent to another few years of incompetent dictatorship by a bunch of clowns who think they know how to run a country.

The underlying theory is that because "we" take the most trivial part in the process (limited, for the most part, to selecting one name from a short list of total strangers) and because we have the option not to select that same idiot in 4 or 5 years time, we can be bamboozled into believing that our role is significant enough to give the whole system some legitimacy. And, because "Democracy" is widely recognised as being the only legitimate form of government which does not involve some measure of tyranny, our Rulers label their system "Democracy" in the hope that the word alone will hide its deep authoritarian flaws.

And, generally speaking, the subterfuge works. Most of The People still believe they live in Democracies. A few mavericks point out from time to time that this is not true. (Famous example: Lord Hailsham's description of the British system as "Elective Dictatorship") but the media treat such outbursts as a bit of a joke and the issue sails straight over the heads of the Electorate. They have been well conditioned to accept that the way things are is the way things must remain.

We're permitted to change the bus driver from time to time, and even, occasionally, to decide where the bus will stop to pick up new passengers. But we can't be allowed to change the bus, or even get off it. And both the route and destination are always determined by the driver.

I watched the party leader debates with mild interest. To be fair, they did at least come across as reasonably intelligent articulate performers who won't make us cringe with embarrassment if they represent us on the world stage. But I only heard one statement which penetrated to the heart of the real political problems. It came from pretty boy Clegg and it could usefully become a mantra:

The Way We Got Into This Mess Is Not The Way Out.

Real Democrats understand that Democracy is about We The People making ALL the important decisions ourselves - NOT electing egotistical and incompetent Decision Makers to do the job for us. For that reason true democrats may consider it pointless to participate and even more ethical to stay away from the polling booths and ignore the whole process. But Clegg's aphorism sums up the one rational way for Democrats to cast your vote on Thursday.

What he reminds us is that the last thing we need is "more of the same" which is all we're going to get if the country elects another Tory or Labour government.

I'm certainly not about to argue that the Liberal Democrats are more competent than the other jokers or that they would make a better fist of running the country. There is no basis for such a belief. But you don't need to expect such a miracle or to support the Lib-Dem policies, such as they are, in order to welcome the one tiny step in the right direction which they represent.

If they achieve either an outright victory (somewhat unlikely) or a very significant share of the popular vote (30% or thereabouts - which, thanks to Clegg's performance in the debates, begins to look plausible) then they will - for the first time in our history - be in a position, when it comes to the post election wheeling and dealing, to insist on one vital change in our political system - the way we elect our dictators. They will be able to force the introduction of Proportional Representation.

Before I understood Democracy, I used to campaign for PR. I stopped doing that when I realised it was a bit like campaigning for women to become priests. I don't even like the idea of male priests, why the hell would I give a damn about women sharing the same set of delusions and unwarranted authority?

But there's no denying that PR does bring with it a couple of benefits. Whoever gets elected, nobody will ever represent me. But, for the sake of argument, let's assume that voting for a party means that they must represent at least one significant political belief you might share with them. Under the present system it is inevitable that even with a so-called landslide majority, less than 50% of the electorate are represented by the Party that forms the Government. This is because the majority party in Parliament usually achieves that position with less than 50% of the popular vote and a much smaller proportion of those entitled to vote.

PR will force the system to represent (at least in terms of choice of Party) more than a majority of the voters. That is a fundamental requirement in a Democratic system and forcing majority representation would be the first tiny step in the right direction.

The second is the elimination of the Authoritarian concept of "Strong Leadership" which is made possible by the inherent corruption in the system which allows 100% of the power to go to a party with less than 50% of the electoral support. This is the result the authoritarians most fear. They would actually rather have the other side win a clear victory than be forced to concede fairer representation.

Because PR will force higher levels of representation into the system, one- party rule becomes virtually impossible. And political compromise becomes not just necessary but the only practical way to do business.

The key word is Consensus. Authoritarians hate it. That's a damn good reason for the rest of us to pursue it. And though PR won't magically make us achieve consensus, it will at least change the mindset of our "Masters" to one where the FIRST target is consensus, rather than the last. That too, is an essential step towards Democracy which, in case you didn't already know, was adopted and perfected by the Athenians over two thousand years ago primarily as a means of preventing Tyranny - by anyone (including "Majorities") against anyone.

Despite the title of this piece, I don't actually have a strong desire to see MPs swinging from the gallows - though those responsible for taking us into the illegal invasion of Iraq certainly deserve it - but a collectively hung parliament is definitely the best result we can hope for this time around.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Is That Democracy On The Horizon?

Is this the moment we've been waiting for?

According to the mouthpiece of the nation - the BBC - 85% of the UK population are no longer prepared to allow Parliament to police itself. They demand external independent scrutiny; one of the main purposes of what I call Trusted Surveillance which I've described elsewhere.

For those of us who've been banging on for decades about how we cannot and should not trust politicians this is not exactly a novel demand. But that does not reduce its historical importance by one iota. This is the first time in British History that We The People have collectively acknowledged the inevitable corruption which accompanies Political Leadership.

True, half of them are still thinking in pre 21st century terms and imagine that all we need is yet another election, to change a few of the faces of the elected dictators. More significantly, though, it looks like already at least one third of the population are waking up to the fallacy of that notion.

There is no point electing another bunch of corrupt politicians. There are NO potential politicians who can credibly guarantee that they will never yield to the temptations of power.

Once We The People dare to confront this blindingly obvious truth, we will have completed the first step in our transition to becoming an Adult Society. One, in which every citizen shares an approximately equal burden of responsibility for the way our society is run and, in return, shares an approximately equal measure of the benefits that accrue. (And, no that doesn't mean "property is theft" even though I'm a fully paid up Anarchist)

How then, if elections are not the answer, are we to proceed?

By demanding the abolition of Parliament and its replacement with Democracy. Easier, of course, said than done.

Regular readers of my ravings won't need me to rehearse the difference between the political systems we have and Democracy, but new readers might be confused. Many citizens still think that their Parliament, Congress, Knesset or whatever already is or was Democratic. [If you are new to this "paradox", you can read my bite-sized comments on dozens of related stories by grazing my "Democracy Stumbles" or you can dive in to my deeper analysis here]

About the one thing that all people - even the enemies of Democracy - agree about in defining Democracy is that it includes "the will of the people". Those of you who thought that Parliament or Congress (etc) was the triumph of Democracy simply need to consider the question: How much of what has been done by these bodies has ever truly reflected the will of the people?

Honest opponents of Democracy argue that the Political Leadership should never even attempt to reflect the will of the people and there is a very powerful line of argument to defend that position which we who advocate real Democracy must confront and resolve - even to the satisfaction of those honest opponents. As I've said elsewhere, a major problem for aspiring Democrats is the current general levels of ignorance and inability to distinguish rational from irrational arguments.

Those, for example, who deny the link between HIV and AIDS or dismiss the powerful support for the Theory of Evolution provided by the fossil record and modern genetics, or dispute the fact that Neil Armstrong landed on the moon all have one thing in common. They don't understand the science they're criticising. They do not understand how irrational they are being. And, unfortunately, on some issues, they are not in a minority.

However, while that is undoubtedly a problem for Democracy, it is just as serious a problem for the alternatives. Irrationality is certainly just as common among existing political elites as it is among the civil population. (You need look no further than the War on Drugs to confirm that proposition) That, in a sense, is precisely what the masses have been alerted to by the string of crimes and crises we've watched in the past few years and there is no good reason to argue that the population at large is significantly more or less rational than the political elites we have to suffer.

Dishonest opponents of Democracy achieve their goal (season tickets on the gravy train) by pretending that what we've got already is Democracy, so why would we need to consider change? Unfortunately, even these manipulative parasites need to be persuaded, rather than forced, to concede the changes we need to make. Why?

Because one of the most damaging distortions of the public concept of Democracy is that it equates to simple Majority Rule and that anything the "Majority" wants can legitimately be enforced. Even this dangerous delusion is diluted and perverted by so called "representative" politics such that Majority Representation is held to grant supreme authority to those parties who hold the majority of seats in the various Parliaments, even when based on "first past the post" elections which produce parliamentary majorities which "represent" minorities of the population.

Democracy was invented, over two and half thousand years ago, to eliminate Tyranny and Dictatorship - by anyone against anyone. This included preventing the dictatorship of the Majority against the Minority.

What that means is that a true Democracy attempts to get everyone on board. Not just "no child left behind" but "no citizen left behind".

It is, of course, impossible to achieve that ambition in every case. There are inevitably occasions when a decision must be made, in order to allow X, and true consensus (the genuine absence of ANY dissent) cannot be achieved. An uncontroversial example I frequently use is "which side of the road shall we drive on?" There are only three possible answers which do not result in mass casualties; Left, Right and One Way Roads (dual carriageways).

a) we MUST reach agreement or we couldn't (relatively) safely drive on the roads at all and
b) whatever that agreement is MUST be enforced, even if that occasionally requires coercion. We cannot afford to allow dissidents to speed the wrong way down the highway.

However, that does not mean we cannot reach sensible compromises with the dissidents. They might, for example, prefer one side to the other because they've already invested in a vehicle suited to driving on that side of the road. They would either need to have their vehicle converted to drive on the other side, or, if that is not feasible, they need a new car of similar value.

It would be unfair and unreasonable to impose that cost on the dissidents alone. It should be shared by the whole community who will benefit from the imposition of the new rule. If, for instance, 90% own vehicles adapted for driving on the right, while 10% are designed for the left, 90% of the cost of the conversions or replacements could (and, in my view should) be borne by the 90% majority while the remaining 10% is borne by the minority. In short, we all pay a fair share of the costs and can all then fairly share the benefits.

That is an example of how a Democracy can yield a fair result, where the majority do indeed dictate the final decision but they recognise and protect the legitimate interests of the minority in the process. Think of it as a model for any other "split decision" and then compare it to what has actually been happening throughout our history, including recent history in which we have allowed the elected dictators to pretend they are democrats.

A genuine Democrat is not hell bent on getting things "his way". A genuine Democrat wants everybody to be content with the decision, not least because that provides the strongest guarantee possible that the decision will be implemented consistently, universally and fairly, with minimum dissent and, thus, minimum enforcement costs.

The question is, how the hell do we get there from here?

First and foremost by agreeing, as widely as possible, that we actually WANT to get there and that all our subsequent decisions will be designed to move us in that direction. Clearly if we cannot even reach that initial consensus, we will never have a chance of reaching the final goal.

The extraordinary opportunity we have now arises from the sudden mass awakening of We The People to their Leaders' feet of clay. For perhaps the first time since ancient Athens, a critical mass of the population is prepared to accept the possibility that we need a real revolution in Political arrangements which prevents the corruption and self serving incompetence we've suffered for several thousand years. Perhaps we've matured sufficiently to realise that it's not just a matter of choosing a bright sparkling new Leader and hoping that he or she can correct all the errors made by their predecessors.

In Britain today, the circumstances have created a perfect storm. The Financial meltdown which we're still undergoing (and is likely, in my view, to go much further still) demonstrated the astronomical incompetence of the ruling and monied elite. Not just, of course, in Britain, but around the World.

Prior to that, we were used to seeing governments of all colour demonstrate their own breathtaking stupidity over the decades, but to see the sheer scale of the global collapse and to appreciate the level of public and self deception required to manufacture it has been truly educational to those who used to have faith in Leaders.

But the straw which looks like it might break the camel's back took me by surprise. If you'd been taking bets on which events would provoke political rebellion over the past 10 years, my money would have been on a bent leadership taking us into an illegal war based on lies and distortions and in clear opposition to at least half the population. When the biggest ever street demonstrations took place in the run up to the Iraq War, that was the moment - when We The People were so pointedly ignored - that I thought the spark was going to hit the tinder box.

Hardly a whimper.

When they demolished the 800 year old protection against the arbitrary actions of a tyrant - the effective abolition of Habeas Corpus and the introduction of 28 day detention without trial, I imagined V type waves of popular insurgency.

Minor ripples among the chattering classes.

When they proposed an ID Card requiring the infrastructure coincidentally required for Totalitarianism, I remembered the Poll Tax riots and mass refusal to pay and thought "They'll never get away with that!"

Muted protest - somewhat less effective than the campaign against the 3rd runway at Heathrow.

And so on. All these major outrages against the civilised management of Society have been allowed to stand. We The People, for the most part, stayed dumb and dormant.

But on learning (for example) that an MP claimed £1500, from the public purse, to build a house for his ducks, the public shit hits the fan and the British Citizen is up in arms! Bombing foreigners, curbing liberties and spying on the citizens is one thing, but fiddling your expenses? That, apparently, takes the biscuit.

Don't ask me!

I can only speculate that it is a cumulative effect of all the above and that the issue of expenses is almost literally the final straw. Be that as it may...

For the first time, in my life, I'm hearing Mainstream discussion of the possibility of introducing a Recall Law into the British system. You know, like the one that put Arnie where he is today. I needed a new keyboard - and a new cup of coffee - after I first heard that on Radio 4.

Don't get me wrong, a Recall system isn't a fix for the system. But it's a bloody big step in the right direction. It puts a cap on their powers. Would Blair have dared to play Bush's fig leaf in Iraq if he had known that his constituents could recall him?

That's a very serious constraint and well worth having. As is Proportional Representation which is, again, being discussed in the Mainstream, though not, it is true, for the first time.

I used to campaign for PR before I learned about Democracy. If you must have representative politics, duly constrained by the Recall system, then at least ensure that the final body loosely (i.e. proportionally) represents the myriad opinions in the wider community. Such a condition should be no more than common sense but listen carefully to the Authoritarian arguments against it.

And all the arguments against PR ARE Authoritarian. Principally that PR prevents "clear" or "bold" or "unpopular" decision making. This is authoritarian code for an admission that PR prevents decisions which do not reflect the will of the people.

Pre 'king cisely.

Their second major objection is that PR over-represents the interests of the minority. This is partially true, particularly if you retain simple majoritarianism in the Parliaments - which allows tiny minority parties to tip a large minority party into absolute power for the price of a slice of that power.

The solution to that is to end simple majoritarianism. Require 75% majorities for legal force and now the coalition has to be much more widely representative. But, of course, that would mean that those who insist they know what is right for us - the Authoritarians - would rarely get their way.

We've even heard serious discussion about taking a step down the Swiss path and introducing a primary element of Real Democracy - the ability of We The People to trigger government policy on any issue subject only to the gathering of sufficient signatures on a petition. The Tory proponents of this idea don't actually dare to propose direct referenda but they're moving in that direction.

This is truly revolutionary stuff and all represent major steps on the road to Democracy.

So it may be that bumbling British bureaucracy, petty deception and political incompetence has finally created the conditions for that Revolution we never quite managed to have. And who knows, perhaps once we in Britain have ironed out the bugs and created a workable system, Europe, the United States and, eventually, most of the rest of the planet might join us in creating the first global Democracy...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Social Networking Damages Your Brain

Though, apparently, not half as much as watching it and commenting on it from the outside.

This just stopped being amusing. Even 'king Newsnight is warbling on about it now. But stop right there. Just compare the headlines on those two pages.

The Daily Mail:
Social websites harm children's brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist

Online risks: from cancer to autism?

Note the note of certainty present in the first and prominently absent from the second. A note of certainty that constitutes a barefaced lie because it imputes content in the statement from a scientist (Prof Susan Greenfield) which simply wasn't there. She could, I imagine, sue them for libel. All she announced were her fears, which we'll deal with in a moment. What the Mail trumpeted was a declaration of actual ongoing harm. There should be a law against that!

Fortunately the Newsnight studio debate (If that link evaporates, here's a youtube backup) was a reasonably balanced affair between Dr Aric Sigman (the source of the Cancer concerns) and Dr Ben Goldacre (author of "Bad Science" and the Grauniad column of the same name.) Newsnight's intro included reference to previous social panics over "New Technology" from the introduction of clocks (which would separate us from "natural time"!), through the Printing Press (which would make us all intellectually lazy!!) and the Telephone (which would make us all antisocial!!!)

And purely by coincidence, I stumbled this only this afternoon:

Anyway, Goldacre quickly demolished not so much the notion, (it is entirely plausible that kids brains are affected by the new media - I'd be 'king amazed if they weren't) but the claim that the result is "damaging". There is simply zero evidence to support that. And, to be fair to Greenfield (which is why she should sue the Mail) she made no such claim. Even the hyperbolic article beneath the deliberately deceptive headline made that clear with the quote from the Baroness:

My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment.'
(emphasis added)

...and, elsewhere, her concern that "repeated exposure could effectively 'rewire' the brain" (again, emphasis added)

These are not unreasonable concerns and nobody should object to some serious research on the issue. Personally, however, the only real concern I share regarding the amount of time spent at the computer (on all business, not just social networking) is that, if you're still in the larval stage (i.e. younger than about 25), and spending more than a couple of hours a day at the keyboard, you are probably depriving yourself of major amounts of physical activity which you need for optimal physical development, including the development of your immune systems, reasonable aerobic fitness, good muscle tone, flexibility etc etc. If you're not doing at least 30 minutes a day of pretty serious exercise, at that age, you're asking for trouble in later life. In this respect I am more sympathetic to Sigman's concerns than Greenfield's.

I could speculate, on the same day that another famous Newspaper warned of imminent internet induced collapse, that the Mail's not so hidden agenda is that anything which drags people away from the web is good for their business. But I have no evidence for that so, unlike the Mail, I won't pretend there is any.

Greenfield, however, is, unfortunately, one of those who "just don't get it". She's been rabbiting on about how the Web is damaging attention spans and people's ability to focus for months now and frankly, I find her comments both ignorant and insulting.

Take, for example, her repeated speculations that Social Networking interactions are preventing participants learning how to form real world relationships and attachments. If she bothered to lurk a sample of what's going on, she would quickly learn that when they're not discussing the perennial favourites of Teenagers for at least the past half century (Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll) the Number Four obsession is relationships in the real world and what they should do about them.

Hence, far from reducing their abilities in this respect, what they are equally likely to be involved in is "peer review" about the best way to handle such development problems; which, almost certainly, means that the average quality of such advice is increasing because the daft stuff is much more quickly identified online - and kicked into touch - than it is offline.

A similar huge unresearched kerfuffle is regularly kicked up (particularly by Webophobes like the Mail) about such phenomena as "Suicide sites" where angst driven teenagers gather together to discuss why they should not go on living and how best to end it all. Occasionally we hear that one of them has topped himself. You'd be forgiven if you formed the impression that this was becoming a major problem. After all, what else would lead to government promises to shut them down? But if you go looking for evidence of the numbers of "online suicides" they're remarkably difficult to find, considering how much of a problem they're supposed to be. The best I could manage was this site talking of 70 deaths linked to suicide sites in 2008 "eclipsing" the 55 from 2005. And that's the GLOBAL estimate.

In contrast, we learn here, that over 1700 teenagers killed themselves in Britain alone between 1997 and 2003 - and this turns out to be good news! Because it actually marks a 28% decline in the Suicide rate over that period, with males experiencing an even more dramatic 35% improvement. Just at the time the explosion of online activity got going. Fancy that.

So, in fact, despite the routine authoritarian hype, online suicide, is - particularly compared to offline suicide - very rare indeed. So rare, in fact, that it makes me wonder how many lives such sites are actually saving. How? I suspect it is a result of simply allowing the sufferers to get together. For the first time in human history, suicidal teenagers can communicate deeply and intimately enough to share their suffering. And I strongly suspect that it will emerge that, while it may push the occasional sufferer over the edge, for the majority this contact alone is enough to lift many of them out of the gloom and back to normality. That's something else we need to research.

But as Goldacre pointed out, there is already considerable serious research on the phenomenon of Social Networking. Danah Boyd has made herself one of the leading researchers in the field and she maintains this portal giving access to much of it.

None I could find supports any significant negative effects and some indicates some positive effects. Clearly it's too early to make lasting judgements and the jury is still out, but just on the question of the effect on real world relationships, Boyd's own research found:

When I ask teenagers why they joined MySpace, the answer is simple: “Cuz that’s where my friends are.” Their explanation of what they do on the site is much more vague: “I don’t know… I just hang out.” Beneath these vague explanations is a clear message: the popularity of MySpace is deeply rooted in how the site supports sociality amongst preexisting friend groups. Teens join MySpace to maintain connections with their friends.
(emphasis added) (1)

Before getting back to the Newsnight debate, we can't ignore Greenfield's concerns regarding Autism, which are frankly bizarre and badly misinformed, especially for an academic.

She told peers in the House of Lords it would be worth considering whether the rise in autism - a condition marked by difficulties forming attachments - was linked to the increasing prevalence of screen relationships.
Just one wee problem with that wild speculation. The average age of diagnosis of Autism remains below 4 years old. I don't know about you, but I don't see many 4 year-olds (or under) trolling the Social Networks. (although I've had my doubts about one or two)

TV v The Web
Meanwhile back on Newsnight, I was desperately waiting for somebody to make two obvious points. Right at the end of the piece, they got close and I was sure Goldacre would nail Sigman. He let me down. Though, to be fair, Paxman may have cut in too soon to give him the chance of replying.

Sigman made the point (in defence of his own case against Social Networking) that there is mounting evidence of the damage to young kids who watch more than an hour a day of Television, particularly if they do so before the age of 3.

As this study reveals, he's completely correct. It is quite frightening. They are being programmed for passivity and a short attention span, particularly if they watch American commercial TV, which cannot maintain focus on anything for more than 10 minutes. That was the first point I was waiting for.

By contrast - and this is the second point which should have been made but wasn't - comparing the passive behaviour of watching TV with the active involvement required for participation in Social Networking is like comparing watching the Grand Prix with taking part in it! And the consequences of the difference are utterly profound and seem to skate miles over the heads of the whingers like Greenfield, the Mail and last year's over-hyped doom-monger Andrew Keen.

You're simply not noticed and essentially fail to form or link into a network!

This is the kind of thing I touched on in a recent Stumble about other people who "don't get it". There is no doubt in my mind that Social Networking (and Web 2.0 generally - popular publishing) is dramatically transforming Society forever. And in ways the political class will not like at all.

The Real Fear
All these conservatives, naysayers and authoritarians claim concern about the loss of community, the weakening of real world relationships, reduced attention span etcetera, etcetera. They try to frighten parents with talk of increasing loneliness and isolation amongst the generation of Social Networkers. Well, if you're reading this, and you've got this far, then no-one can accuse you of reduced attention span. And, given that you're one of the victims of this poisonous environment, are your Stumbling/Blogging/Facebooking/Myspacing etc activities leaving you feeling isolated and depressed? If so, I have to wonder why so many millions of us are doing it! Are we all masochists?


What they're really concerned about, even they have the sense not to mention (in public). It's not the loss of community they fear. It's the loss of control. Our online communities are beginning to get organised and, as Obama's election showed, beginning to have an effect in the real world. And it's not a reduced attention span they're really afraid of, it's the focus of our "limited" attention being on things they'd really rather not have exposed to such an intense gaze - like 9-11 and the illegal invasion of Iraq; like the illegal torture, "extraordinary rendition" and other attacks on civilised values and liberty allegedly required in pursuit of the War on Terror; like the thousands of illegal attacks by Police on Citizens; like the activities of Big Pharma or the fraudulent basis of the American dollar or the IRS. We ain't just exposing naked emperors, we're examining the bastards - in public - with a proctoscope.

Evolution at Revolutionary Speed
What is really happening may appear to be rather slow if you're stuck in the middle of it, because "real time" is pedestrian. But in historical terms, we are going through a lightning speed transition. Just consider the fact that half the people reading this probably cannot remember a time when people didn't walk down the street talking into a mobile phone. Many Social Networkers have had an email account since they learned to read - and those few who read this will be surprised that I even consider that worth mentioning. They'll have learned to use a mouse at about the same age I was catching sticklebacks in a jam jar.

Is this dramatically different lifestyle going to produce a dramatically different kind of human brain? I bloody well hope so, 'cos I certainly haven't been too impressed with Version 1.

The key thing is that while ALL computer related activities, including those online, are undeniably far too sedentary - though things like the Wii are beginning to address that issue - the online life is certainly NOT "inactive". Yes, you can sit and watch youtube for hours, but, though it offers a welcome respite from time to time, it's actually rather tame compared to all the other shit you can do online. And a helluva lot of that other stuff requires some activity on your part, even, occasionally, some intelligent thought.

And once you take it to the Social Networking level, it requires even greater levels of engagement. Blogging takes it one step higher. Now you're laying yourself open to the world and his dog to attack you, in public, for your unsolicited views.

Overall, far from isolating people, the Social Networks and blogs are allowing a far larger proportion of humanity to have both low and high level conversations, across a far broader population base than we've ever previously even dreamed about. And out here, it is, at last, obvious how artificial and unnecessary tribal, religious and national boundaries really are - together with the artificial human constructs on which they are based.

No, we're certainly NOT isolated. What We The People are doing is evolving at revolutionary speed. At this crucial stage we are still learning how to participate in intelligent discussion and the decision making process. We are still learning how to moderate - at least verbal - conflict. We are still learning how to take control of - at least - our virtual lives, and, I would argue, we are beginning to see the signs that this is spilling over into management of our real lives.

In particular, there is a huge gap between the intelligence level of Society online and Society offline. Such that many of the comments you'll get away with in the schoolyard, the workplace, or even the dinner party will get short shrift online. Make a claim about a "fact" online, and, if it isn't true, someone will shoot you down pdq. Would that this happened more often in real life - particularly to politicians and other professional liars.

The Genie Won't Climb Back Into The Bottle
This is not, in any way to ignore the blatant frauds, the scams, the spam, the virulent misanthropy or the crass stupidity of many of the bitizens hereabouts. But they do a lot less damage in cyberspace than they do in the real world, and, in the real world, you can't do much to keep the buggers out.

And because the well informed bitizen knows that there is a serious risk of deception, they have much better strategies for testing what they are told. The kind of lies that Politicians routinely get away with in the real world are quite impossible to peddle here. This is one of the reasons Politicians the world over are so keen to try to put this genie back in the bottle.

Hence we see the hopelessly naive and positively Victorian attempts by the Australian government to make access to porn impossible (which is, itself, impossible); and the Chinese firewall designed to suppress dissent and the tools you need to spread it; and the British government's illicit instruction to the ISPs to retain private web browsing data for two years (soon to be adopted Europe-wide); and the illegal American ban on online gambling; and the German government's ban on Holocaust Denial sites (and proposal to follow the Australian porn filtering route); and the bizarre ban by the French on one of the single most important uses of the web - citizen journalism featuring, for example, the filming of violent attacks by citizens on citizens or, increasingly often, by police on citizens. And so on. We won't even talk about what they're up to in the 3rd World or Islamic countries

All around the world, governments, made up of thousands of people who "just don't get it" are trying their hardest to roll the clock back to the days before we had the liberty to speak our own minds on the global stage; make our own alliances without regard to tribal norms or national boundaries; watch or read whatever we want, whenever we want, share it and comment on it with whoever will listen and generally conduct our virtual lives completely beyond the control of governments. They REALLY don't like this game and they will do whatever they can to bring it down.

They Cannot Control What They Don't Understand
They haven't got a hope. If you really want to dismantle or control something as colossally complex as the Web, you MUST have a very deep understanding of what you are attacking. And ALL the people who have that level of understanding, the ones who really DO get it, have no intention of giving it up. And even at the shallow end, it's a beautifully subversive technology. As soon as you do get it, at all, you become "one of us".

The online communities are, of course, fully aware that we are under attack from "yesterday's men". We know how much bullshit they spout in the real world and how they try to emulate it in this one. But if you want a couple of examples of how their approach fails miserably in cyberspace, take a look at the War on Drugs and see how little traffic their message gets against ours. Or compare the number of Atheist sites to Christian ones - and then compare that to our populations in the real world.

How many atheists do you suppose have been converted to Christianity in the past few years? I can name the only one I know of: Anthony Flew. In contrast, I've given up counting how many wavering Christians have thanked me personally for this story which, they tell me, has steered them away from "the path of Christian righteousness". And I don't get anything like the traffic of the prominent Atheist sites.

We Won't Get Fooled Again
One of the consequences of all this is that online communities are developing a much deeper sense of integrity and honesty. Yes, of course, we can still find a million flame wars, megatonnes of bullshit, groundless conspiracy theories and all kinds of crap. But unlike the entirety of human history prior to this time, any well motivated individual can, generally without expense and without requesting permission or assistance from any other, step out onto the web and unravel "The Truth" in much greater detail and quantities than we've ever previously been exposed to - even if we were yesterday's World Leaders.

Does anyone think that the present corrupt political systems will survive this growing clarity?

Does anyone really believe that, We The People, having taught ourselves, by playing with the frivolous, how to conduct the serious, will ever again be stupid enough to trust the pompous incompetent charlatans who have led us into the mess the world is in today?

Why, having taught ourselves what's really been going on behind the scenes throughout most of human history and having taught ourselves that - when it matters - it is actually possible to prevent people lying to us, why would we ever again permit the politicians or the police or the bankers etc to get away with their organised crime?

The political class has had its day. We The People are about to take control; perhaps not this year or this decade but in the not too distant future. It's no longer a question of If, but When.

If you are one of "them", (as if) don't worry, I'm sure we'll find you a nice little home...


(1 boyd, danah. (2007) “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life.” MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning – Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume (ed. David Buckingham). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

The Authoritarians

Imagine No Religion.

You think that's difficult? Try this:

Imagine No Government.

Such is the extent to which most people have been conditioned, that I am confident that less than 1% of even those most likely to read these words will dare to believe that I'm making a serious proposition.

Asking people to imagine how the world could possibly work without "the authorities" making decisions on our behalf and generally "taking care of business" is like asking the planets to stay in orbit around the sun without gravity to hold them in position. Or so we have been trained to believe.

Undoing that deeply embedded conditioning is far more than I can hope to achieve in one simple blog. But I can try, at least, to introduce you to three strands of the argument, one of which I wish to cover in some detail.

Strand One - Look Around You.

Do you see evidence of well managed successfully run society?

No, you see a continual series of cockups, conspiracies and catastrophes caused almost exclusively by those "in charge". And, if you've taken any interest in history, you'll be fully aware that this is not a novel situation, but the normal condition of humanity.

The degree of incompetence, ignorance and corruption which accompanies the efforts of the elite to remain in control is truly breathtaking. The only novelty in the current era is that we are finally beginning to see it in "real time" rather than having to wait a generation or two to read about it history books.

That we have made the obvious collossal technical and social progress which separates us from our Hunter-Gatherer ancestors, is a tribute to the sheer genius of humanity and its ability to overcome even the obstacle of inept Government. Human social progress in particular has rarely - if ever - been a result of intelligent planning and forethought.

Most of our progress has been made in spite of government rather than because of it. Indeed even the vast majority of so called "political progress" can usually be shown to be the necessary corrections by an incoming elite of the disastrous mistakes made by their predecessors. They usually survive long enough to create their own disasters and are in turn partially corrected and "improved upon" by their successors.

I and thousands of others are continually ranting about this strand of the argument (most of the entries in this blog have been about little else) and I will take up no more of your time with it today.

Strand Two - Democracy

Democracy is so poorly understood, that hundreds of millions of people actually believe they live in one. A few million think it's an evil force matched only by history's worst Tyrannies.

I spend a great deal of my time writing about that too, so, again, I'm not going to repeat myself today. For now, I will remind you of only one main principle. Democracy has NOTHING to do with elections.

Democracy is ONLY about We The People making ALL the IMPORTANT decisions. In all other systems - which we call Governments - the clue is in the name; they - the dictatorship or ruling elites "Govern". They dictate the laws, perhaps with the consent of a few hundred lesser governors, but nearly always without requiring the consent of the Governed. (With the sole and notable exception of Switzerland)

And as long as We The People continue to delegate our Authority with our craven demands for Leadership, we will continue to avoid even the option of implementing Democracy.

True, electing a dictator is marginally better than one who elects himself, but as the examples of Hitler and the soon to expire Bush regime clearly demonstrate, the elected ones are often no better than the alternatives. Who, for example is best placed to weather the current financial storm, the American "Democracy" or the Chinese "Democracy" (and note well how both call themselves Democracies)

Strand Three - Authoritarianism

This (if you hadn't guessed from the title) is my main focus today.

I think we are all born with what Authoritarians would probably describe as a "prejudice against authority". As young children,we have tantrums whenever we cannot get our own way and we spend our early years learning how to circumvent the controls put in place to prevent us doing our own thing.

Our later attitude to Authority is dictated by what happens to us in these formative years. If the need for constraint is patiently explained and any punishments proportionately and humanely administered, we may come to see that the Authority wasn't trying to bully us into submission. They were trying to protect us from harming ourselves or those around us and most of the constraints were sensible and necessary. As a result, we reach an age when the constraints are no longer necessary because we understand how the world works and how to conduct ourselves within it without causing harm to others, and generally, unless we really want to, without causing harm to ourselves. We learn to become Autonomous.

Conversely, if childhood constraints are applied without patient explanation and with the excessive use of brute force or emotional violence, we create Authoritarians. These are the emotionally and, usually, intellectually stunted individuals who believe what their parents obviously believed, including, most importantly, that Might is Right and that almost any means is justified by their Ends.

Authoritarians have been taught from a tender age that it is Wrong to Question Authority. Some of them grow up to become Authorities themselves and take the dimmest possible view of any challenges to their own Authority. Others grow up "knowing their place" and fully trained to submit to the whims of Authority almost regardless of what those whims might be.

I've always been subliminally aware of this split, but until recently, I'd almost regarded it as a personal prejudice left over from my childhood. I had one Autonomist parent and one Authoritarian. I think you can guess which one influenced me most!

And then I Stumbled across Bob Altemeyer, who turns out to be The Authority on The Authoritarians!

I think you should read that (free online) version first. It's well worth it. But there are a couple of reasons you might want to cheat and read this version (pdf 2.5mb) instead. It is my "commented" version. I've highlighted, in two shades, what struck me as the most important passages (the brighter being the more important) and that lets you zip through it in about a fifth of the time. Unless, of course, you stop to read my comments as well, which will take you back up to around half the time.

I think it is possibly the most important book you can read right now. Ever since I read it, most of my Stumbling comments have been influenced by it. All those Atheist evangelist sites trying to argue with Creationists; all the anti drug-war sites trying to argue with prohibitionists; all the moderate Muslims trying to argue with the Takfirists; all the opponents of ID Cards trying to argue with government...

All completely wasting their time. And once you've read The Authoritarians, you'll finally understand why.

I got close to it myself. When I asked (and tried to answer) the question "Are they lying, stupid or blind?"

Altemeyer answers that question definitively. The answer is Yes. They are often guilty on all charges. Because their Ends Justify their Means, they will rarely have any compunction about Lying. The Authoritarian followers and many of the Leaders really are often every bit as plain stupid as they look and they are all "blind" to the reasonably trivial reasoning processes most Autonomists picked up by puberty.

Unlike my "prejudiced" opinion, however, Altemeyer has carried out 40 years of thoroughly respectable and well documented research to back up his conclusions. And frankly the result is deeply disturbing.

In my essay on Militant Islamists, I make the point that, the most extreme elements - the Takfirists - are so distant from all avenues of reasonable negotiation that
...we are in a fight which will only end if either they (the Takfir type who insist on violence as a means of conversion) or we (the rest of the human race - including most Muslims) are permanently erased.
Takfirists are typical Authoritarians. Not even particularly extreme. Especially if you measure the kill ratio. The Takfirists have yet to kill even 1% as many as the Authoritarians they're fighting.

And if we can't reason with the Takfirists, how can we ever hope to reason with the other bigger, deadlier Authoritarians who control most of the rest of the planet?

As of now, I would argue that every major problem humanity currently faces can be rephrased in the form: "What can we do, or what should we do, about the Authoritarians?" They and their attitude ARE the root cause of nearly every major problem we face. Most problematic is their deliberate subversion of "reason" and their pride in remaining impervious to logic.

In the case of the Takfirists, I have accepted the need for a War, albeit somewhat more intelligently fought than the one we're in. But there is no way we can consider war against the global Authoritarian movement.
  1. they represent 25% of our species so we'd be talking the most massive bloodletting in human history
  2. they OWN most of the weaponry! and
  3. they're much better at killing and happier to do it, than we are.
So what CAN we do?

The only major advantage we've got is that we're a lot smarter than they are. The weapons we must deploy must make maximum use of that asset. What those weapons will be I cannot answer definitively, but I am doing my best to describe and develop at least one of them.

That - or something like it - will help us "manage" the problem.

In the long term, however, I suspect the only solution is to "outlive" them. If we make it to and through the Singularity, these concerns will seem trivial and transient. And, with luck and a following wind, that event may not be too distant.

We don't get Authoritarian Transhumanists. Think about that...

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Why Admit a War Crime on Prime Time?

This happened on December 16 right?

I cheered!

I assumed that, by Christmas day the bastard would be safely locked up. After all, Bernie Madoff is under House Arrest and he's only 'fessed up to stealing money.

Yet, despite the reasonably wide coverage and commentary on the significance of this confession, NOTHING has happened to Cheney. Why not?

Here's my favourite coverage, so far. It's from Rachel Maddows.

Part 2 can be found here.

I can only speculate that the reason that nobody's done anything is that they're all stunned, like rabbits in the headlights. It's all so blatant and in your face that everybody's thinking

"er... did he just say what I thought he said? Out Loud? On TV? If he did, then perhaps it can't be as illegal as we thought it was, or else, he wouldn't have dared to say it. Surely?"

Cheney is obviously cleverer, or at least more cunning than the apathetic masses watching his confession. Consider what happens if you continue to sit on your hands. Yes You, the silent passive population of the Police State of America will have given the green light to all future torturers. After all, if this one gets away with it, without criminal prosecution, then clearly it's approved by You the American People.

And if he is now prosecuted, his lawyers will no doubt argue that it's impossible for him to obtain a fair trial anywhere in the US because every potential juror has already seen his confession!

If that isn't a watertight case for either a lynch mob or Assassination Politics, I can't imagine what is...

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Global Self-Hypnosis

"Sounds all really scary - how should this happen, these dead people? Do we have to be so pessimistic?"

Thus spake one of my Stumbling friends* after a recent comment I made regarding the prospects for the imminent collapse of Capitalism.

Many of us might welcome such a collapse. Larken Rose, for example, makes an entirely reasonable case for "ignoring the debt out of existence". We The People (he argues) should simply refuse to accept the "National Debt" burden being placed on us to in order to keep the global financial system from disintegrating. Ethically, I can't argue with him.

Pragmatically, however, I have to point out that the economic catastrophe which would follow our success in rejecting the bailout would trigger an even more catastrophic population crash and, along the way, the total collapse of what passes for our civilisation. Bill Deagle may yet be vindicated.

How so? Well consider what will happen if/when the Dollar falls.

Not only would the American economy instantly implode (probably triggering a Civil War but that would be almost trivial in the global context) but it will drag down every major creditor economy with it. Overnight, the Balance sheets of China, Russia, Japan and the Oil Nations who are funding the US Debt and economy would evaporate.

Without the Dollar as a Reserve Currency, the world would first attempt to find another currency - like the Euro - to fill the breach, but although the Euro region is almost self sufficient (notably in all major areas except Energy), it does not have the asset balance or sheer volume of currency required to replace the Dollar, largely because no one does - or could. The values now weighed in Dollars are entirely mythical. They bear almost no relation to the "facts on the ground".

In the absence of a global "Reserve Currency", the world would be forced to fall back on the Gold Standard (or something similarly valuable and immutable) and, in a nutshell, in exactly the same way as there aren't enough Euros, there isn't a fraction of the Gold (above ground at least) necessary to replace the Dollar debts that now exist. Hence, the whole World would default on its debts, rendering all credit (and debt) meaningless; and without credit and exchangeable assets, most of the world will be reduced to barter; which will cope with about 10% of the key items we need to trade. For the rest, we'll be generally unable to buy anything from anyone.

In that situation, food distribution will be one of the first things to collapse.

Without a global means of exchange, trade will plummet. And trade keeps most of the human race alive; on an almost literal basis by filling our supermarkets with the food most of us eat but on an equally serious level, it maintains the entire infrastructure of our civilisation.

Yet consider how badly we already cope with food distribution in the world today - with an "efficient" (or at least functional) Capitalist system. You and I and about 2/3 of the human population live in relative security and comfort. A billion or so live on the breadline and over 900 MILLION people are more or less constantly at Starvation level. Think how many more will fall to that level if and when the global economy collapses. We'll be very fortunate if it is less than 50% of the population.

Those who are lucky and live near reasonably self sufficient organic farms or have the ability to start new ones - and can defend them - might survive. The rest of us will have to become scavengers over the ensuing 6-36 months and take pot luck. If that happens, then whichever way you play it, we're inevitably talking about a massive "die-off" of the human species.

Even within the dim recesses of their Authoritarian minds, the current rulers of this planet clearly recognise this threat; not, to be sure, that they'd be too concerned about losing half the population through starvation (some of them would, no doubt, see that as a positive outcome) but they are certainly concerned about the even more probable loss of their own wealth and their grip on power.

THAT is why, in recent weeks, we have seen utterly unprecedented financial "miracles" performed. Consider how, for the past 50 years we've been unable to find couple of billion dollars a year it would take to eliminate malnutrition; or the $5 Billion it would take to stop 1 million poor people a year dying from Malaria; or the $20 Billion it would take to treat Africa's AIDS' victims and so on.

Yet suddenly, out of nowhere, when their own necks are on the line, they've managed to lay their hands on $6 TRILLION dollars in a matter of a few weeks.

I really don't think people quite appreciate the scale of what they've already done and what is still in the pipeline. And I don't think they will realise until the historians put it in context in a couple of decades.

Essentially the money they've "magicked" into global being is all they can do to prevent the bubble bursting. That money literally doesn't exist. Although clearly fraudulent, it is not fraud in the sense of the recently unearthed affairs of the aptly named Mr Madoff (whom we can reasonably expect to be the first - on this scale - of many). Rather the $6 Trillion is an exercise in global self-hypnosis.

The various governments who need the dosh have effectively said to the rest of the world - to whom they already owe more than they can afford to pay back - "lend us the same again and we'll all get out of this mess together". They haven't said - because they don't need to - "or else we all go down the plughole together".

But the creditors don't actually have that much money to lend. Again. Nobody does. So - and here's where the self-hypnosis kicks in - what you will see over the coming months is the Fed (and some of the other collaborating central banks) printing new money (and issuing new "bonds") to give to the existing creditors in exchange for large amounts of the so called "Toxic Debt" those creditors also hold.

The creditors will pretend that they believe the new monopoly money has real value. And the central banks will pretend that the toxic debts also have real value. This actually constitutes a reasonably fair deal. The value of the toy money really is about the same as the toxic debts they'll be exchanged for.

The result will be that vast amounts of new money is made available for the banks to start lending to ordinary businesses and punters like you and me. As a result of which we'll continue buying and selling things and the whole magic roundabout will keep turning.

The key is that every player of the game must pretend that they believe in the rules of the game. They must continue to treat the toy money as though it has real value.

In "Peter Pan" we learn that whenever anyone says "I don't believe in fairies" one of them dies! (when performed in Pantos, this is used as a device to get the kids to "Clap if you believe in fairies" in order to bring Tinkerbell back to life)

That is precisely the state the global economy is in today. If too many people decide "I don't believe in the Dollar" and point out the utter lack of foundations beneath it, the bubble of belief will burst and - like a cartoon character suddenly realising he's stepped off the cliff...


The reason, however, that I'm not as pessimistic as the above picture looks is because I believe their strategy might actually work. None of the major players can afford to let the ball hit the ground. So they probably wont. At the same time they are as fully aware of the situation as the commentariat. This is forcing them - however reluctantly - to adopt policies which may allow us to survive.

My fear is not that their self hypnosis won't work - in a sense it's been working like this for the past 50 years so we're only talking about more of the same. It's what this situation will provoke in other areas which frightens me. Deagle thinks that the collapse is what will trigger the next wave of Totalitarianism. I fear that the measures taken to avoid the collapse could produce similar, though not quite so cataclysmic results.

We've already seen a major ramping up of the Police States across the world since 9-11. I fear the next few years will see at least as much again.

One major feature of global politics which has long worked in our favour is the inability of the various elites in different countries to co-operate. The internet, for example, only remains as (relatively) free as it still is because the various nannies, censors and totalitarians cannot agree on a common control agenda and mechanism. The current financial crisis has, however, forced them to co-operate on an unprecedented scale. They may develop a taste for it and begin to get their act together in all sorts of other much more sinister ways.

This will not be good news for We The People, though We The Sheep'll no doubt be delighted.

The Authoritarians are on the march...


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Time for a Global Debt & Tax Holiday

assuming, that is, we want a "soft landing" and speedy recovery...

It is profoundly revealing that $2 Trillion of public monies has been found, so quickly, to rescue the rich when, for the past 50 years it has proved so difficult to find much smaller sums to rescue the poor. Perhaps it's time for a partial rebalancing of that equation.

One can't help noticing that this huge safety net has been prepared for the exclusive benefit of the money men who steered us into this mess. Their principal victims - homeowners and other individual debtors - are being left to pick up their own pieces. Seems to me that this is a fundamental injustice. What's good for the geese ought to be good for the ganders. With that in mind, I propose a two year debt and tax holiday so that we ALL get some of the benefits.

Anyone who cannot afford repayments on current debts should be offered the option of a debt holiday. Not for free of course. If we did that then everyone with a debt would suddenly decide they could no longer afford the repayments.

The creditor can add reasonable interest to the loan so that, in effect, if you take a two year holiday, at a reasonable rate of interest, then once you resumed payments, it would take you perhaps an extra two and a half years to pay off the delayed payments. Something like that.

No doubt there'll be some haggling but now we've accepted we're all in this together (and we have accepted that - haven't we?) then I'm sure that the vast majority of reasonable human beings (both creditors and debtors) can approach this proposition with good will.

A reasonable constraint on the debtors, should they choose to take a debt holiday - with ANY of their creditors - would be an undertaking (on penalty of cancellation of their holiday) not to incur any further debt with any other creditor until they've either cleared their debts or at least resumed normal service of those debts. (There could be exceptions to that, where both creditors and debtors agree the viability of new loans)

This measure would have the immediate effect of sharing the benefits of the global $2 Trillion bailout of the credit industry with the homeowners and other overstretched debtors at the bottom of the financial food chain who would otherwise lose their homes, businesses etc while the fat cats struggle by on a reduced ration of cream.

More practically, stretching the credit this way (essentially a massive rescheduling of private debt) would dramatically reduce the default rate and help to maintain the integrity and viability of the credit market (largely by preventing the Credit Default Swap scam - which we discussed a couple of weeks ago - from being exposed as an insurance bubble)

However, in addition to relieving the pain of debt, and sparing the blushes of the derivative traders, it will also help - a little - to revive the marketplace - which urgently needs to maintain the trading cycle (or, in some cases, to restart it) albeit on a more sustainable basis. The funds that would have been going to loan repayments will now be available to buy at least the essential goods and services that people need to maintain their normal standards.

To go beyond that and stimulate a genuine revival of the marketplace, or at the very least significantly mitigate the otherwise very painful recession, I propose a two year VAT/Sales Tax holiday.

This is the most effective and easily implemented tax cut that we could dream of. Unlike any other tax cut, the taxpayer can't "cheat" by saving instead of spending (the reason for which, economists argue, other tax cuts don't necessarily promote economic growth). You only get the benefit of this tax cut by spending! It just means you get more bang for your buck. It would immediately slash high street prices by significant amounts (on average about 15% across Europe)

It would be relatively trivial for businesses to implement - they simply tell their Point of Sale and Accounting software that the Standard rate of Tax is now zero %.

Governments will still want to collect the data of course, but that's no biggie. I don't know a businessman who wouldn't happily send in the quarterly Tax return if he no longer had to send a cheque with it!

From that data, the government can calculate exactly what their Tax receipts would have been and issue bonds to the money market to finance the shortfall. Yes, that does mean an increase in government borrowing, but that - as governments around the world are acknowledging - is the sensible option in the circumstances. as it would prevent drastic public spending cuts which would otherwise fuel the downward spiral.

While I was drafting this over the weekend, the UK political parties were coming up with their own diluted versions of these proposals. The Tories were punting a VAT delay of six months and the Government were pleading with lenders to scale back on re-possessions.

Both these feeble approaches are like throwing a cup of water into the flames when we need a couple of dozen fire-hoses. Delaying VAT payments for 6 months will cause more problems than it helps. If small businesses are in the kind of trouble in which this kind of cash flow assistance is necessary, then, obviously, they'll spend the money - and won't have it on hand to repay at the end of the 6 months - leading to a wave of additional defaults then.

But, in addition, merely delaying VAT payments won't have ANY effect on the market - because prices would have to stay right where they are (because the Tories want the tax collected eventually). So as well as storing up a bigger debt problem in six months, we'll have done nothing to stimulate the market. FAIL!

Simply pressurizing lenders to reduce their pressure on borrowers is, first and foremost, inequitable. If the big players are being recapitalised at public expense, and having their debt rescheduled, renegotiated and/or forgiven, why is it even possible for those same lenders to penalise their borrowers? The conditions for this rescue package should have included stipulations for similar treatment to be passed down the line.

And, again, merely reducing pressure doesn't free up the funds. And, as the government trumpets its rediscovery of Keynes , when the market is about to take a dive, we need to sustain spending, not reduce it. The debt holiday will release funds for that spending.

Still, it's encouraging that they're at least thinking in the right direction. We might be pushing at an open door. Nevertheless, putting their sticking plasters onto the compound fractures of the global economy isn't going to help. We need to allow time for the system to heal.

Two years of the FULL debt and tax relief treatment and we will be on the other side of this black hole we seem to have dived into. It could be the difference between a mild recession and a severe depression. Which for millions of people around the world might also mean the difference between Life and Death.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Is Wolf Crying Wolf?

I rather hope so. If not, then Bill Deagle's predictions from last week are going to materialise a lot sooner than he realised.

Naomi's call to arms frightens me and I don't even live there!

I hope - but I'm not entirely confident - that she's gone off half cocked. Of course, I have the benefit of having watched 2 full weeks of history unfold since her call and that 2 weeks has been packed with some fascinating history!

It's just one week after Bill Deagle's predicted trigger date and, much as I'd like to gloat that the world didn't go up in flames, he never actually predicted that it would (at least not last Tuesday) and I certainly cannot argue that events since have falsified his hypothesis. I think he could reasonably argue that the global events and the reactions they have provoked have been sufficiently large scale to qualify as his trigger.

I'm not even inclined to quibble too much about his not hitting the date smack on the nose. The biggest event on his predicted date (Tuesday 7 October) was the collapse of Iceland. Significant, I'll concede, but not on the cataclysmic scale. But the parallel collapse of global markets, subsequent nationalisation of a large percentage of Western Banks and resurrection of the markets: those events really are on the right sort of scale.

Nevertheless, I'm groping for a few straws to clutch at. I think Wolf's analysis is flawed. For a start, she places considerable weight (as one of her 10 Steps to Fascism) on the hyping up of an internal or external threat to provoke panic. She - along with some opponents of the initial American Bailout plan - argues that, right now, the financial crisis is that hyped up threat. I can't accept that. I really don't think it's hyped up at all. I don't think she's fully grasping the sheer scale of what's going on in the Financial world.

This is a double edged sword however. She might well be connecting the right dots but for the wrong reason. She seems to think those positioning for a totalitarian takeover (and I don't dispute the positioning) are manipulating the crisis in order to make a case for that takeover. In contrast, I think it's more likely that the "leaders of the free world" have a pretty clear idea of what will happen if and when the world and his dog wakes up and realises that the entire global monetary system is the biggest confidence trick ever invented and there is no more reason to believe in it than to believe in fairies. And we all know what happens when we stop believing in fairies.

In this "optimistic" scenario, the American Totalitarian option, for which they are obviously preparing, is a genuine contingency plan for what happens if the bubble really does burst.

Bill Deagle's visions are fully compatible with what Wolf is describing and these bleak scenarios are definitely a possible result of the inevitable crisis which would follow such a collapse. Nevertheless, in arguing that the situation is being hyped up, Wolf is taking one step beyond where I'm currently prepared to follow.

Given the social and economic collapse which would follow the collapse of the money bubble, you could certainly argue that the Police State measures, the homeland security budget allocations to State PDs, the unprecedented and unconstitutional deployment of National rather than State militia are all "prudent" preparations for the Martial Law which will be necessary when the population realises that the infrastructure of modern society is about to disintegrate and up to half the human race is likely to die as a result. How else can the ultra wealthy protect their property from the ravenous hordes other than with overt military force?

And such an outcome is still a very real possibility. If the Insurance market really is trading at the $516 Trillion dollar level, (as opposed to the "modest" $62 Trillion I spoke of last week) this implies truly astronomical levels of fraud and corruption in the system which will be exposed as soon as any major claimant is refused the compensation they think they have paid for. That's when the shit will really hit the fan.

But I'm beginning to perceive one or two small rays of hope.

First and foremost, none of the players can afford for the system to collapse - even if it means they themselves have to take the hit. Consider the biggest Creditors, like China, for example. What would happen if they pushed America over the edge? Not only would they force America to default, they would, in the process, lose 99% of the value of their credit, lose their most valuable market, create the conditions for a fascist America which would still retain the worlds largest nuclear arsenal and would now be very pissed off with China.

The irony, incidentally - of Red China being one of America's main creditors and not being able to afford to let the Capitalist State collapse - is orgasmic.

But that logic, to a greater or lesser extent, is true of almost every player in the Global Financial market, whether or not America owes them any money. Because the Dollar is the world's Reserve Currency (link added 23/10/2008) and there are no immediate viable alternatives, NOBODY can afford to let the system fail. So it's quite likely, in my view, that nobody will dare to push the button that makes it fail.

Secondly, just looking at the $516 Trillion. Given the value of the global economy is a mere tenth of that ludicrous figure, it is arithmetically obvious that at least 90% of the "money" or nominal value which comprises that gargantuan sum CANNOT be real. So - with luck, what might happen if the bubble bursts - apart from a bunch of ferrets fighting in a sack over who gets to keep the 2 or 3% of real value - is that no REAL damage will hit the REAL economy. Perhaps the worst that will really happen is that a few of the very rich will get slightly richer and a lot of the very rich will get somewhat poorer.

Yeah, I know that looks wildly optimistic, but remember the general guide: Follow the Money. I genuinely can't see how ANYONE - with the possible exception of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement - could possibly benefit from the total collapse of the system, so I don't believe anyone will provoke it. And, as we're seeing, the capitalist governments are actually taking measures which are beginning to look credible in the eyes of the market - who, fortunately, seem to be blissfully unaware of the risk of the bigger Insurance bubble bursting and are only concerned with the credit crunch and lowering the inter bank rate.

Now, of course, I may be wrong, the bubble will burst, in a worst case rather than best case scenario, and the entire global trading and capital system will go up in flames, taking half the human race with it. And this may be exactly the scenario the Police State is preparing for. If we really want to milk the possibilities, we could speculate that they will await the outcome of the US election before they press the button. If McCain gets it, the button is handed over to the trusted puppet to press if and when he's instructed to do so. This has the advantage of continuing the illusion of "democracy".

But if Obama wins, and the decision to go Total has already been made, then perhaps we can expect a suitable chain of events to be engineered (probably including the assassination of the President Elect) in order to justify the imposition of Martial Law for "as long as the incumbent President sees fit". A new election will be scheduled for the following November, but it will always be nudged a little further into the future...

The question is, what if the money bubble doesn't burst? It will not then be in the interests of the money men to let their puppets press the wealth destroying button. In which case, Obama will come to power, spend the next four years pretending to run the country like a normal president and everything will carry on as before. Nobody would ever know how close we came to "the end days".

We have to hope that Wolf IS crying Wolf, or else all bets are off.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Who the hell is Bill Deagle?

He's a modern "prophet". One of only a few million now available from your nearest online connection.

Apparently, following the "blood sacrifice" represented by the $700 Billion Bailout, he's predicting a major financial event for Today - Tuesday 7 October 2008. An event whose consequences are going to begin a sequence of falling dominoes (mainly collapsing banks and other financial institutions) and leading - first - to the collapse of the global economy. Along the way we can expect a false flag nuclear attack on Los Angeles, followed by Martial Law in the US and a "pestilence" within 1 or 2 years.

Somewhere parallel to this timeline he foresees the blockade of the Middle East by the US, leading to an invasion of the Middle East by "Communist" China, leading, ultimately, to global destruction and the collapse of civilisation. Just in the next 12 months we can expect a hundred million people to starve to death. And somewhere in the mix we'll get human clones and "super-soldiers" though whether that's in the next couple of years or a few decades down the line isn't entirely clear.
(Download the mp3* - not for the faint hearted!)

Nothing too serious then; just the standard set of modern nightmares. What's new? Not a lot, though the timing is interesting.

Deagle has form. He's already recognised as one of the "wild men" of the 9-11 Truth Movement (where he shines in the face of considerable competition) so the most rational response to his latest "visions" would normally be to roll over and go back to sleep. The problem is that events are conspiring to support him and his ilk. Earth shattering financial events are now happening on an almost daily basis. It is actually LESS likely that we'll hear nothing today than we'll hear something which could appear to validate his dark visions. So if almost ANY serious financial event takes place today it is likely to give the Deagle story legs.

He and his supporters, however, even have a reasonable amount of wriggle room. Because today's event is only billed as the first domino, we might not spot it happening. Months down the line, they might be able to argue that it was Ben Bernanke's 10 minute delay in getting his first coffee of the day which will eventually be seen as that domino. Which butterfly would we blame for the hurricane?

If it is that trivial, almost no-one will take any notice. But if anything really significant does happen today, you can expect the Deagle prophesy to go viral. You have been warned.

Of course, as is appropriate in the circs, I have to hedge my bets against the small probability that a truly staggering financial event will indeed take place today. So momentous that it would be churlish to deny the apparent validity of Deagle's prescience. Can we set the bar at a reasonable height? What might qualify as a "hit" for Mr Deagle?

Well, if it's going to be that undeniable it's going to have to be even bigger than what we've already experienced in the last few weeks, (or else we could reasonably argue that the bigger event was the first domino). So it's got to be bigger than the nationalisation of Freddy and Fanny, bigger than the rush of European banks to guarantee bank deposits, bigger than Monday's stock market drop and bigger even than the unprecedented $700 billion bailout. Can we imagine what such an event might be?

Well yes we can. For me the most disturbing single incident in recent weeks has been the nationalisation of AIG - the biggest insurer on the planet. How on earth did that happen? Aren't the insurance industry the safest of all the gamblers because they're the bookmakers, the scientific risk assessors? The bookmakers ALWAYS win. Don't they? Not any more, if Daniel R. Amerman is to be believed.

If I understand his description correctly (and I wouldn't bet on that), AIG, and the insurance industry generally, has been taking on truly astronomical bets without the resources to pay out if they fail. By way of analogy imagine they've insured every ship against sinking. Statistically, there is - say - a 1% chance of any ship sinking in any given year. So if they charge an annual premium of 2%, they collect enough money to pay out on the few ships that do sink and still make a handsome profit.

What they haven't budgeted for is the possibility that 20% of the ships might sink in the same year. Not only does that produce a situation in which the shipowners are not compensated, but the insurers themselves are forced into bankruptcy because they can't afford to lose on that many bets.

This is the very real prospect now facing the global insurance industry which carries the risk for all those lenders who have been doling out the dosh to all those punters and businesses who either could never realistically have afforded to repay (and really shouldn't have been lent the money in the first place) or, less predictably, but just as seriously, those otherwise well run businesses or prudent punters who, through no fault of their own, now find themselves unable to pay because the accelerating global recession has reduced the values of their assets and/or income.

The sheer scale of the Insurers' credit swapping trade (ie. bets which now look very risky and are not even "mainly" covered by assets) is mind boggling. It dwarfs the Bailout. It is what the mathematicians call two magnitudes higher, i.e. not ten times as big but nearly 100 times as big. It's nominal value is actually greater than the nominal value of the entire global economy. We are talking about $62 TRILLION US Dollars (against the global economy value of "only" $54 Trillion). How people can "owe" or "own" a total value in excess of the global worth of the economy is beyond me and probably constitutes an important clue to why this bubble may well be about to burst. And your guess is as good as mine in regard to what proportion of that enormous sum is actually "at risk" but the impression I'm getting is that the vast majority of it is "exposed".

But what Amerman explains - albeit a bit too sotto voce for my taste - is exactly how the insane risk taking was allowed to happen. This isn't a case of "bad luck". It is a clear case of systemic corruption.

The short version is that brokers get commission for selling a policy. They get that commission up front, the day the policy is signed. AND THEY DON'T HAVE TO REPAY IT IF THE BET GOES BAD. (They also get annual bonuses based on short term profits rather than long term performance.) What this means is that the brokers themselves take no risks but nevertheless have the authority - and incentives - to sign deals which mean their employers are taking ludicrous risks.

The major bunch of insane risks that began to unravel last year were the subprime loans; mortgages assigned to people who had a far higher risk of failure than normal. Usually even that might not have mattered. If a bank recognises a credit risk, it can factor that into the loan in a few ways. It can, for example, raise the interest rate to ensure that, across the piece, even though more borrowers will default, it will still make a profit on a "basket" of such loans. It can choose to lend only a fraction of the asset value for which the loan is issued. It can take on the risk and then insure against it.

If it does any of these things, and the borrower defaults, the bank continues to receive premium rates from the rest of the basket, gets the house and/or makes a claim on the insurance to cover what ought to be trivial losses. Yes, we'll see the collapse of the house owner and their family, but no danger to the sacred money market.

It seems that the market has deliberately conspired to circumvent all such means of protection. First, instead of lending at a premium rate which would deter most subprime candidates, they routinely sucked them in with very low rates which only climbed to the premium level after a year or two. Second, instead of lending only a fraction of the asset value, banks lent not just the full value, but in many cases MORE than the full value. And third, recognising, to some extent, the additional risks they were taking, they took out insurance, but the insurance turns out to be worth less than the paper it's written on. And THAT is - in my view - the real scandal which has yet to be fully aired.

According to Amerman, the inherent corruption created by upfront non refundable commissions and bonuses have produced a "free market" in which brokers outbid the competition by deliberately understating the risks (often with the help of 3rd party "expert" Risk Assessment agencies) thus enabling them to get the business by demanding smaller premiums.

Hence, for example, whereas a real subprime mortgage is about - say - 20% likely to default, the insurance premiums were actually based on a notional 1% risk. Meaning that the insurers collected only 5% of what was necessary to cover the real risk and that the vast majority of subprime defaults are, therefore, effectively uninsured; meaning, in turn, that the lenders are going to have take the money out of their own reserves. And their reserves aint that big. So they haven't got money to loan to new borrowers and when they approach other banks, who would normally have lent them "wholesale" money, they find that their former lenders no longer trust even the banks to be able to repay their loans. That's what triggered the first wave of the ongoing epidemic.

But the effects of the corruption don't stop there. In order to hide the weakness of their risk protection, the various agencies have conspired to invent a wide array of "instruments" designed to make risky debts look like routine reasonably safe ones. They bundled high risk debts with medium and low risk debts into "Credit Default Swaps", "Structured Investment Vehicles" and other such jargon camouflaged snake oil "derivatives" and sold each other packages of scented ordure. Somehow (and this will need to be thoroughly investigated as well) these high risk packages were given so called "Triple A" credit ratings (meaning "as safe as the Bank of England" or thereabouts), which meant that all the major institutions were happy to buy and sell them, falsely believing that the credit rating meant that there was no significant risk.

And at each "swap" the brokers picked up more of their non refundable commissions.

The corruption appears to be almost global. However, although no countries have made such fraudulent risk trading impossible, some, most notably France, are at least insulated from the effects on personal banking and credit. There, even a standard credit card doesn't offer you actual credit. It's more accurately described as a debit card. If you don't already have funds on the card, you can't spend the money. And you can't get a mortgage of more than 80% of the asset value. The French been criticised, in the past, for their conservatism, but it looks like they may well have the last laugh, although even they will not escape the fallout if the global insurance industry falls over, effectively nullifying all the protection we think we've prudently provided for.

I have no idea what consequences might follow if the $62 Trillion dollar global insurance industry were to collapse and no idea what might push it over the edge, or how close we may already be to such an event. It has to be significant that the Americans leapt so quickly into the breach, with an $85 billion nationalisation with almost no debate and no significant protest. They obviously realise how serious such a collapse would be.

But given the panic that has so far already ensued over less than one Trillion dollars worth of debts, it doesn't take too much imagination to see that a $62 Trillion dollar collapse might well justify even Deagle's most disturbing predictions.

You have been warned.

*thanks to Alana13, one of my Stumbling friends for sending me the mp3.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Its All A Conspiracy

I'm gathering Conspiracy material by the ton in preparation for a chapter on Conspiracy Theories and how only Social Trust in the political process can begin to reduce the widespread paranoia such theories reveal. Trust and, of course, the abolition of political and economic Conspiracies.

This is an interesting example of the genre. The respectable Lou Dobbs is interviewed by the manic Alex Jones. During the interview we move - in a series of small jumps - from the fascinating question of why the Americans are allowing the Dollar to slide right through to the menace of the New World Order.

We'll stick with the dollar for now. The American passivity does look weird. Like watching mythical lemmings rushing towards their mythical cliff edge. How can it not end in financial collapse and consequent economic ruin? And it's not as though Lou Dobbs is the only one voicing such thoughts. It's as mainstream as you can get. This (mp3 4 mb) was broadcast on Radio 4's Today program this morning (yesterday morning by the time I post this), the day after I listened to Dobbs. And this is on the BBC News site as we speak. The consensus is clearly that we're about to come down with a hard bump. The unprecedented injection - by a consortium of central banks - of 280 Billion dollars into the Lending market also speaks of desparate measures to avoid a crash landing.

Yet given the apparent inertia of the American Establishment, we must assume that either they've got a hidden parachute which will open in the nick of time and permit a relatively soft landing; or they really haven't got a 'king clue what is going on and they're completely unaware that they're about to crash and burn.

...their analytical record to date gives a strong clue as to which is the most likely scenario...

...but that doesn't make for good Conspiracy. For the dedicated conspiracist, incompetence is far too simple and unlikely an explanation for such behaviour. The government cannot possibly be as stupid as it looks. Therefore, if the dollar is going down, then they must want it to go down for a reason. This argument falls at the first hurdle.

Governments really are and always have been every bit as stupid as they look. Human History does not provide a record of sensible or effective management. Almost every major step we have made in social, political and economic organisation has been the necessary attempt to fix the mess made by our predecessors. The fact that there are still some readers who will be surprised by such a description is a measure of how effective their education systems have been to date.

That should tell you where I'm coming from. I favour cockup over conspiracy nearly every time. But that "nearly" is there for a reason.

Meanwhile back at the Plummeting Dollar (good name for a Pub?), the conspiracists' favourite reason for inaction, at the moment, is "to kill off the dollar so it can be replaced by the Amero" which is a reference to the conviction, held by some conspiracists, that the elites of Mexico, the USA and Canada have secretly conspired to create a supernation incorporating all 3.

European readers will be feeling a certain anti-climax at that point. "yeah... and?"

...whereas yer average American Libertarian will be howling at the moon. To us, in the reasonably civilised "supernation" of Europe, apart from above average levels of bureaucracy which we could live without, being in a supernation works pretty well for nearly all of us. Just for example, I have the right to ply my trade or set up home, or access medical and other services in anyone of 25 European countries, even if their government doesn't like me. That's not a bad start for benefits. And I can't think of any significant costs that are unique to membership of EEC.

I'm not going to get into a bare knuckle fight over the issue. Is it perfect? Of course not. But is it a reasonable working model of liberal capitalism? Much more so than the US of A.

We could argue about that, of course, but we'd be arguing on the margins, percentage points here or there separating the two models. What I simply cannot bring myself to understand is the sheer horror with with the idea of an American supernation on the European model is seen by its opponents. Their reaction is very similar the Religious Fundamentalist reaction to things like homosexuality. It is a deeply frightened, bigoted, overemotional - amygdalic - reaction which has almost no basis in objective analysis of the facts.

Ask the average American living in Europe which system they prefer and the answer comes down heavily in favour of Europe, though you could argue that such a sample is self selecting. But objectively, on every significant social, health, economic and political measure, Europe easily matches or outranks the USA. What on earth is it that they think we're suffering under our dreadful system which fills them with such fear for a similar outcome?

Be that as it may, at least their hypothesis is testable. Essentially, if they are right, then in 10 years time, the new superstate of North America will be catching up on Europe. We shall see. Don't hold your breath.

I do not wish to leave you, however, with the notion that I've become an "anti-conspiracist" who now dismisses all conspiracy theories as the work of paranoid delusions. That's why the "nearly" was necessary. There are herds of very real conspiracies. History is riddled with them and there are probably a dozen or so globally significant conspiracies going on right now.

This site gives an entertaining intro to some of the real conspiracies that are matters of historical record. I also like his style, for example:

"Unfortunately for him, Hitler wasn't nearly as forgiving as his fiery public speeches and penchant for genocide would lead you to believe"

The important thing is that the stories are all true and well documented conspiracies. And they're only a small fraction of those we know about. Conspiracy is common place. Unfortunately (hmmm... or perhaps fortunately) actual Conspiracies are nowhere near as commonplace as the vastly more numerous Conspiracy Theories. (to which this randomly selected page gives an intro)

Now, whether or not they are intended as such, the vast majority of Conspiracy Theories serve no other purpose than to act exactly as disinfo is intended to act; as camouflage for the real conspiracies. So when a bunch of conspiracists argue that this is precisely the point of many of the stories - just to cloud the water - it is difficult to argue that they are deranged.

The difference between the real ones and the others is the degree to which we can find satisfactory unequivocal evidence. Not speculation. Not anecdotal reportage. Not a million web sites repeating the same allegations. But cold hard empirically verifiable forensic evidence that we could, if we had to, place before a Jury of our Peers.

That standard of evidence - which we need before we start believing in Ghosts, Aliens, Homeopathy, the election of a President or whatever - narrows the field considerably. But it doesn't kill them all off - any more than all the valid explanations of UFO sightings successfully explains away all the sightings.

Some of the shit sticks.