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4
May 2014

Today I Thunk: Political Promises

“Today I Thunk”… kind of like “Thought For Today” but with less gravitas.

Political PromisesSo as campaigning continues in the local and European elections, I am struck by just how hollow the claims of the candidates sound. We have reached a point where I basically assume a politician is lying whenever their lips are moving. Or at best, they are too damn stupid to understand just how stupid they sound. Either they are schemers with a hidden agenda, or they are careerists without the intelligence to hide their agenda of pure self-interest. And the problem, of course, is that politics has become a job without any consequences for failure*.

Which is kind of crazy given that it’s actually a pretty important job. Indeed, with the exception of Hollywood film producer and premiership referee, there is surely no other job where you can so consistently demonstrate incompetence and yet face no negative consequences aside from transient public criticism.

So here’s an idea… when politicians are campaigning for our vote, they should be obliged to sign a contract with the electorate. This contract would outline the exact terms by which their party would measure success if elected.

So, for example, they might state that unemployment would be below a certain percentage after their first term in power. Or that the number of people classified as being in poverty would be below a certain number. There are all manner of metrics that can (and should) be developed to quantify the success (or failure) of a government.

Then, at the end of the term in office, if they have not succeeded in keeping a significant proportion – say 75%? – of their promises, those individuals are legally prevented from (a) standing in the next election, and (b) drawing any pension from that term of office.

If nothing else, this will result in political parties being forced to openly admit they’re unwilling to make ambitious promises. It will demonstrate the paucity of their belief in their own intentions. It will bring some much needed “consequence” to their almost inevitable failure. And – over time – it may even result in a better class of politicians – people willing to make ambitious promises that they actually intend to keep.

* Voltaire wrote that “the ideal form of government is democracy tempered with assassination” and – as awful as this may sound – I think there may be something very wise in his satirical comment. We desperately need some form of negative consequence for political failure (and no, getting voted out of office with a hefty pension and a future full of non-executive directorships hardly qualifies).

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


9
Apr 2014

U2 and It’s a Wonderful Life

Browsing twitter, I noticed Chris Brooke posted a link to an interview with a Tory MP in which he reveals that U2 is his favourite band.

Achtung BabyNow I happen to really like U2. It’s difficult perhaps to separate them from their stratospheric success (and Bono’s messianic shenanigans) and appreciate them musically. But just because Achtung Baby and Zooropa sold a kajillion copies doesn’t stop them being two of the most sonically interesting records of the 90s. As with The White Album… sometimes the stars align and what is popular achieves harmony with what is Truly Great. The albums just before and just after Achtung Baby and Zooropa had wonderful moments, but (and this not a popular opinion among my more musically discerning friends) those two were perfect slices of musical Greatness.

Crucially though, what they are not is political. There’s veiled social commentary here and there, but it’s mostly love songs, songs of regret, songs of personal loss and a whole bunch of Irish Catholicism. All played out across an Eno-produced soundscape of rock, electronica and complex polyrhythms. It’s what Can would have sounded like if they’d formed in 1989 and had an ego-maniacal philanthropist from Dublin as a lead singer.

As I say though, it’s not political music and they are not – in general – a political band. Sure, no band goes 30 years without doing some political stuff, but overall that’s not what they’re about, and an appreciation for U2′s music is no indication of political leanings (unlike say, Billy Bragg… if you say you’re a big Billy Bragg fan there’s a better than evens chance you’re left wing). Meanwhile, I doubt there’s a great many left wing Ted Nugent fans.

So it does not surprise me that a Tory MP would be a U2 fan. No more than it would surprise me that a Tory MP might be a big fan of Miles Davis.

Mr PotterWhat I did find surprising about Sajid Javid MP’s interview, however, was his claim that his favourite film is It’s A Wonderful Life. Because that film is overtly political. It’s a film that is vitriolic about the effects of capitalism on community life. Sure, sure, some see it as an ode to a simpler, kinder capitalism (a golden age that never existed) but that’s hogwash – Master’s degree in Critical Theory and Film Studies be damned! – it’s as close to a socialist manifesto as mainstream American cinema is ever likely to achieve.

And if that last scene where the whole town gathers together and pools their money to help out a down-on-his-luck neighbour is too subtle a metaphor for the average Tory MP; the film even has a character who clearly and unequivocally represents the capitalist establishment… represents Toryism. So how difficult must it be to list It’s A Wonderful Life as your favourite film when it chooses to depict you as Henry Potter?

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25
Mar 2014

There’s still money in mediocre coffee

For almost three years the façade stood bare. An empty shell of a building where once beat – symbolically at least – the dark heart of the Celtic Tiger. But the ephemeral nature of consumer capitalism means even the mausoleums are fleeting. A pause for reflection. But not too long, there’s still money to be made and we wouldn’t want to dwell, would we? We’ll always have the photo-montage I suppose… a reminder of how banal it all ended.

And so it was that the building that once housed Anglo Irish Bank lay empty for three years. Lurked more than lay. An unhappy reminder every time you were on Stephen’s Green of what happens when you gather all the greed and all the stupidity into one building and bizarrely hand them the reins of power.

But three years is a long time for Stephen’s Green real estate to lie fallow. I mean, decorum is one thing but wantonly throwing money away? Tch tch tch.

And so it was that earlier today someone captured a photo of the new tenants having their façade installed. Someone should tell Zizek, he’ll love this…

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


10
Feb 2014

Bank of Ireland redefine time

Most of us, when we hear the phrase “that will take 24 hours” assume that means one day. The thing “that will take 24 hours” will be done the following day.

Not so the Bank of Ireland. For them, 24 hours seems to equate to “some unspecified time over the next week”. And this isn’t just a case of them being late in a particular instance; this is how the system works. They have redefined 24 hours to mean “some unspecified time over the next week”.

Last Thursday I logged into their online banking system. I clicked the relevant buttons to make a transfer from a deposit account to a current account. This process “should take 24 hours to complete”. So, in a world where bankers aren’t in charge of defining units of time; a world – in other words – where a modicum of sanity prevails; that means the money should be in the current account some time on Friday. Makes sense, right?

Well, it’s Monday afternoon and I’ve just spent 15 minutes on the phone with a nice lady at Bank of Ireland who, through no fault of her own, found herself insisting that 24 hours from Thursday afternoon can actually – under certain circumstances – mean Tuesday morning. It seems that when it comes to time distortion, the Bank of Ireland could teach Doctor Who a thing or two.

Bank of Ireland

Remarkably, during our conversation, she explained that when I make an online transfer between a deposit and a current account, I’m not actually setting the transfer in motion. I’m effectively sending a message to someone in a Bank of Ireland office to do it for me. That’s right, despite the shiny web interface and claim that I’m engaged in an “online transfer”, I might as well be mailing them a letter requesting they carry out the transfer for me.

As I pointed out to the nice lady at the end of the phone, if I’d popped down to my local branch on Thursday afternoon and withdrawn the cash at the counter, then deposited it directly into my current account, the transaction would have taken less than 5 minutes. Instead, thanks to the magic of modern technology, I’ll be lucky if it takes less than 5 days.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


9
Jan 2014

The Right’s not what it seems either

Just as our notions of The Left have shifted dramatically in the past forty years, a story caught my eye today that illustrates how The Right (and I’m talking here about the mainstream right) has made a shift of its own. The story is ably summarised by the headline: Firefighters In Tears As 10 Stations Close In London.

Few stories so perfectly demonstrate the Thatcherite transformation of the British Conservative Party. A transformation that itself helped galvanise a terrible global trend. Not so long ago, the Tory Party stood for two things… money and tradition. And while “money” would often win out – it did lose a surprising number of battles and certainly didn’t get things all its own way.

Then Thatcher came in and ripped “tradition” out of the Tories. Now it’s all money.

I’m not saying the Old Tories were a better breed of economic oppressor (in many ways they weren’t) but they were a very different breed. Yet the British media has allowed them to retain the appearance of a party that stands for “tradition”. Just as the media still calls Labour “left wing”.

This matters of course, because it permits people to be hoodwinked into supporting politicians they otherwise wouldn’t. The Conservative Party, pre-Thatcher, would never have expedited the closure of London’s oldest Fire Station – a grand old institution that served the city through the Blitz and more – and then added insult to injury by allowing it to be replaced by something so crass as “a block of luxury flats”. There are people out there who still vote for Boris Johnson and his ilk because they represent “the Britain of old”, something to be cherished, steeped in a history of True Greatness. Whether you agree with that view of British history or not is irrelevant, the point is – the modern Tory Party don’t. And lots of people still vote for them because they hide that fact.

Boris Johnson
Talk of budgetary constraints would have been seen as vaguely treasonous to the Conservative Party of fifty years ago. The survival of that fire station (and others like it) would be considered a top priority to those who take genuine pride in the history and traditions of Britain. A group of people that demonstrably does not include Boris Johnson, David Cameron or George Osborne.

So yeah, British friends… vote for the tories if you’re already very rich. That’s fair enough, they’re on your side. But don’t vote for them because they’re the party of your grandad who fought in the war. They really aren’t any more.

(and neither are that UKIP bunch)

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


9
Sep 2013

Today I Thunk: Mac Vs Windows

“Today I Thunk”… kind of like “Thought For Today” but with less gravitas.

Mac Vs WindowsScanning through my twitter feed this morning I encountered not one, not two, but three separate tweets insisting (using clever little analogies) that Apple Mac Computers are better than Windows Computers. “My computer is better than yours!” they wailed (I’ve always felt Mac users protest a little too much, to be honest, but that’s another discussion).

Are these people children? Or have they reached adulthood without managing to grasp the notion of personal preference? For the vast majority of people, they are most comfortable using whatever computer they first spent time with. Mac? Windows? It makes no difference.

I can do literally everything (I need to do) on a Windows system that an Apple user could do on their Mac. More than that, years of use have made me comfortable with Windows and not with Macs, so if you were to ask me to do the same thing on a Mac I would take twice as long because I’d be struggling with a system I’m unfamiliar with. But I’m pretty sure I could do anything I need to do on a PC in roughly the same time as someone familiar with Macs could do it on their system.

The need of some people to tell the world how much better their computer is to your computer or my computer is a need rooted in playground insecurity. It’s weird, it’s adolescent and people should really get the hell over it. I use Windows because I’ve used Windows for 20 years now. It is the best system for me. When I hear someone tell me that actually their system is better, I picture that person running up to a concert pianist and insisting that the guitar is a better instrument for making music.

Seriously, that’s how much sense you’re making with this weird computer one-upmanship you’ve got yourself involved in. Put an end to it now and embrace the adult realisation that other people don’t feel exactly the same about everything as you do. Sheesh.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


22
Jul 2013

A new age of censorship

David Cameron gave a speech today in which he called on British Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to implement filters on the internet in order to block pornographic content. Certain types of pornography would be banned entirely (obviously those that are already illegal, but also “simulated rape” imagery) while other legal forms of pornography would require a person to explicitly “opt in” with their ISP in order to be able to view it.

Now, this is obviously a sensitive subject (particularly when we’re talking about something like “simulated rape”) and it’s not something I want to spend a huge amount of time on – the blogosphere is full of commentary on the subject and I probably don’t have a great deal to contribute to the debate. However, I do want to add my voice to the calls for extreme caution with regards to this issue.

I’m not going to deal with the moral issues surrounding pornography. They are ably covered, from all sides, by a myriad different writers. However, I would like to request that those who are calling for filters and bans, define their terms. Because nobody seems very willing to do so. A ban on “simulated rape imagery” would obviously cover some deeply depraved stuff. The kind of stuff that would turn the stomachs of most of us.

SRIBut such a ban would also ensure that a whole host of films and TV shows are banned from our screens. Jodie Foster’s powerful Oscar-winning performance in The Accused would clearly never be permitted in Cameron’s Britain. If you claim the film does not contain “simulated rape imagery” then you have not seen it. The same is true of Platoon, Pulp Fiction, A Clockwork Orange, The Outlaw Josey Wales and dozens of other excellent films (plus probably thousands of films that are less excellent but I’d argue are a long way from being worthy of a ban).

Hell, even Akira Kurosawa’s acknowledged masterpiece, Rashômon, while showing very little of the crime that forms the heart of the film, nonetheless contains what can only be described as “simulated rape imagery”. The entire film – as with The Accused – centres on the aftermath and consequences of a rape. Are we suggesting the subject is entirely off limits? Or that it can only be obliquely referred to as an off-screen event?

On the (very few) occasions that defenders of the proposed ban have tried to define exactly what it is they are banning, they fall back on the “intent” of the film or scene. If the simulated rape is intended to titillate or arouse a viewer, then it should be banned. Which means these people are willing to allow – nay demanding – the government be given the power to ban films based on their interpretation of the film-makers intent. If that’s not close to the definition of a slippery slope, then I don’t know what is.

I know, I know, there will be clear cases where a simulated rape scene is obvious pornography. But how do you write that into law in such a way as to ensure that the government cannot decide to use that same law to ban The Sopranos, Twin Peaks and Breaking Bad from our screens? And as someone has already pointed out on Twitter, David Cameron himself owns the TV series ‘24‘ on DVD. Yep, you guessed it, “simulated rape imagery”. Nobody is arguing that there aren’t deplorable things out there; things I don’t want to see and I suspect the vast majority of those reading this don’t want to see either. But I want to be able to draw that line for myself. I certainly don’t want David Cameron or Enda Kenny or any politician drawing it for me.

1 comment  |  Posted in: Opinion


12
Jul 2013

Solar activity Vs anthropogenic Climate Change

I read the news today, oh boy.

New research has been published indicating that solar activity has been in steady decline since the 1940s. This suggests that there is a tug-of-war currently under way between the effects of reduced solar activity on the climate (making the globe cooler) and the effects of human carbon (and other) emissions on the climate (making the globe warmer). Right now, it seems humanity is “winning” the battle.

Solar ActivityHowever, it does seem possible that might change if solar activity continues to drop as is predicted by the new research. Far from offering ammunition to climate change sceptics (how long before fossil fuel companies seize upon this as a marketing opportunity?) this presents an even more terrifying prospect for human (and other) life on this planet. Because it seems to me that this research conclusively demonstrates that we have passed the important tipping points with regards to atmospheric changes; the worst effects of which may have been masked by the decline in solar output.

So even if we do find ourselves drifting into a mini-Ice Age, the historical precedent for this drop in solar activity seems to suggest it will pick up again after a relatively short period of time (there was an 80 year period in the 17th century during which solar output went through the same kind of decline). One assumes the atmospheric changes we have wrought with our industrial output will be massively magnified once the sun starts to ramp up again. From Ice Age to near-global desertification in the space of a century?

We need not only to radically cut our emissions, but we need to return large areas of arable land to uncultivated woodland in order to capture some of the carbon we’ve already released. I suspect that’s politically impossible right now… let’s hope for a more enlightened tomorrow.

4 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion


2
Jul 2013

Free Trade, Subsidies and the CAP

There’s a post over at the Liberal Conspiracy blog that’s getting a bit of attention today. It’s called Why are UKIP silent supporters of the biggest EU rip-off of all? and it is primarily an attack on the hypocrisy of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

UKIP, it seems, are quite unequivocal about their support for the European Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and wish it to continue making large payments to farmers. And yes, given the stated aims (and general attitude) of UKIP, this does represent an interesting hypocrisy – one that appears to demonstrate UKIP’s allegiance to class above principles. Whether you agree with the principle of the CAP or not is irrelevant; it clearly represents a centralisation of power in Europe. Dishing out almost 50 billion a year makes it powerful. It’s enough to torpedo the economy of a small nation after all. The CAP should be against UKIP principles. They should be lobbying hard for its abolition (even if they believe food production should be subsidised, they should surely want it done by the UK government).
CAP
That they are not lobbying for the abolition of the CAP may well be because the CAP currently benefits, to a disproportionate degree, those who least need it… the wealthy. Where small farmers are being supported by the CAP – and yes it does happen – the argument is more fuzzy, but when the 8th richest man in Britain is being subsidised by the citizens of Europe to the tune of almost a million euro per year, clearly something is wrong with the system. The benefits – to the citizens of Europe – of giving a million euro of their money to the Duke of Westminster is surely vastly outweighed by the benefits of giving 100k each to ten struggling small-hold farmers. If you’re going to spend limited funds on subsidising food production, then do it properly. Otherwise just be honest and call it by its real name… theft.

The ultra-wealthy have gamed the system, and they have bought the support of – not the individual political parties, though they come with it – but the entire modern mainstream political system. Which is why a political party that all but defines itself by its opposition to European power can support those aspects of European power that unambiguously redistribute wealth from the bottom and middle to the top.

But what about The Principle of The Thing!?

Yes indeed. The principle of European food production subsidies… what about it? I have heard right wing ideologues argue that the CAP represents a distortion of the free market and should be abolished entirely. I’m not going to address that argument right now. The people who make it are fools. The citizens of Europe can distort the markets any way they damn well please. The citizenry is not subject to the market. It is subject to them.

On the other hand, there is the “global development” argument against the CAP. The Overseas Development Institute (anyone know how reliable these people are? I have a basic distrust of organisations that call themselves a “leading think-tank”, and an initial flick through their website revealed an awful lot of fluffy management-speak and PR waffle, but very little of substance) published a short paper in which they argue that the CAP could be damaging agriculture in “developing” countries. And while they admit that the damage can’t be quantified without further research, the fact that the CAP budget far exceeds the annual total value of African food exports does give a person pause for thought. And when you couple that with the fact that the African continent is a net food importer, you can’t help but think that the CAP might be giving European farmers an advantage that their African counterparts simply don’t have access to.

And while the sophisticated right-wing ideologues might claim that’s actually a restatement of their argument, they’d be wrong about that. One argument states that “distorting markets is primarily wrong, because free markets are in principle the best way to run things”. The other argument states that “distorting markets is not necessarily wrong, but in this specific case it may be because it might be causing some people to go hungry”.

The latter is a valid argument. The former is a dangerous delusion.

The trouble is though, I think the latter argument is a good deal more complex than it appears to be… as is so often the case. And this additional complexity gets lost when people on the liberal left shout about starving children in Africa and people on the neoliberal right insist that everything would be so much better if we’d only allow the market to be free*.

Of course, first there’s the issue of just how much of the CAP actually goes to the already wealthy. I genuinely doubt that the Duke of Westminster’s land is any more productive than it would be if he wasn’t receiving that million euro prize from Europe’s citizens for owning so much land. And realistically, I doubt he’d need to charge any more for his produce if he wasn’t receiving that money. If anything is distorting the market in the case of the Duke of Westminster, it’s his own vast fortune. A free-market argument for high wealth taxation? Not that they’d ever admit it.

So there’s that… if the CAP is truly an instrument of wealth redistribution within Europe (from poor to rich) then it’s unlikely to be affecting global trade all that much. Which, weirdly enough, suggests that those most concerned with overseas development may well want to abolish the CAP, but if that is unachievable then at the very least prevent any reform from which the European citizenry could derive benefit.

Here’s the thing though… I feel strongly that the CAP should be reformed precisely with that goal in mind. And yes, even if that distorts global markets. This probably puts me on the opposite side of the fence to almost everyone discussing the CAP right now, bar small scale farmers (of which I’m not one, by the way), but fact is, I’m not a supporter of the principle of global free trade. I believe very strongly that the essentials for life should be produced as locally as possible. Yes, the scale of modern population centres makes that vastly more difficult than it’s ever been. In some cases, impossible – the island of Britain would probably have some difficulty feeding itself if all food imports were to stop tomorrow for example. But that doesn’t mean we should abandon the principle completely.

Food shortages and poverty in large areas of Africa and other “developing” countries need to be addressed as a matter of urgency. But it should not be done at the expense of European self-sufficiency in food. Let’s everyone get self-sufficient and then we can trade our surpluses in a sustainable manner; I have no problem with that. But if subsidies help ensure food production thrives in Europe, then that seems like a damn fine use for our collective wealth. Of course, we need to ensure the subsidies are targeted at those smaller farmers to whom it would make the biggest difference. Giving our money to multi-millionaires is just bloody stupid. And I hope it goes without saying that we should also be helping our global neighbours achieve thriving and sustainable food production for themselves. It’s just so important on so many levels.

Helping others achieve sustainable self-sufficiency is a moral obligation. Ensuring we achieve it ourselves is just basic good sense.

* I can actually recall using the “but there’s no market for starving children” argument back when I briefly dallied with libertarian capitalism in my teens. As a political philosophy for a grown adult, it’s a distressing state of affairs… but it’s a useful enough way-station on the path to a fully rounded intellect I guess.

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25
Jun 2013

Where’s Hell when you need it?

I almost wish the religious fundamentalists were right. I almost wish there was a hell in which the evil burn for eternity.

The reason I (almost) wish this, of course, is because we have created a society where the evil face no retribution so long as they have money or political influence. A society where people like John Bowe and David Drumm can giggle, sing and sneer while they rip the heart out of the country. The most vulnerable people in Ireland are being subjected to a death by a thousand cuts. And yet the Agents of Mammon who brought us to this precipice simply jet off around the world to find the country with the most lax bankruptcy laws so that they may emerge from the disaster they created relatively unscathed.

Hell, many of them don’t even need to do that. John Bowe, head of capital markets at Anglo Irish Bank, was made a director of the IBRC. This is the man who can be heard laughing and singing Deutschland Uber Allies on the recently released Anglo Tapes. The man who can be clearly heard conspiring to defraud the Irish people of yet more money even after he’d helped sink the economy (or in the words of Simon Carswell in The Times, “[seeking] to hoodwink the State into getting [Anglo Irish Bank] a bigger bailout than it let on it needed”). Yet he’s one of the guys our government paid to deal with the mess.

HilariousAnd the politicians who appointed this man to help deal with the mess? They are no better. One Labour TD has resigned from the party in disgust as they inflict yet more pain on those least able to bear it. The rest of them should just apply to join Fine Gael and be done with the tasteless charade that they are somehow a party of the ordinary people. Just like Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, the Irish Labour Party represents the rich and powerful. It is one leaf in our trinity of Bankers’ Parties.

The religious fundamentalists are wrong about the evil burning in hell. But I almost wish they were right. Because the vile excuses for human beings that inhabit the upper echelons of our political and financial institutions will never be held accountable for the damage they inflict on the rest of us. Bankers and politicians worked hand-in-glove-puppet to bleed Ireland dry. Then, when they’d done as much damage as they possibly could, they appointed one another to well-paid positions in the clean-up operation. And, as the Anglo Tapes reveal, this clean-up operation was simply viewed as yet another opportunity to unleash their bottomless greed.

I don’t know who our next government should be. But let me say this now, as loud and clear as I can… if at the next election, dear reader, you vote for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or Irish Labour, then you are also complicit in the destruction of this country. There can be no more excuses. I only hope that none of them dare knock on my door when canvassing for votes, because frankly I’m at the final straw stage – and I could do without having to face an assault charge in the courts. Our politicians and bankers need to be replaced immediately. And most of them should be imprisoned for their complicity in the subversion of the Irish constitution.

6 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion