Tuesday, January 29, 2008

State of Doublespeak

From the Guardian, this morning.

Ian Williams
In the annals of doublespeak there can have been few such impressive achievements as George Bush's final state of the union address. It was a bit like listening to the emperor Honorius give his self-congratulatory state of the empire speech around 410 - just before Alaric had his Roman holiday.

"Let us complete an international agreement that has the potential to slow, stop, and eventually reverse the growth of greenhouse gases," says the president who has tried to sabotage the already inadequate Kyoto protocol and whose minions have sedulously blacked out any references to global warming from scientific documents.

For all these years, the president has fiddled while the globe heated up - and now he has suddenly become green-friendly, talking of renewable clean energy. But the only tangible thing he has done about conservation is to more than double oil prices since taking office by starting and threatening to start wars in the world's major oil-bearing regions. One supposes that Exxon-Mobil, one of the major Republican funders and opponents of Kyoto, may devote some of its quintupled profits to energy research ... but on the other hand, maybe not.

And it all comes back to Iraq. The Pentagon eats up half the US budget, and more than half the world's military spending but suddenly programmes like social security, self-financing for many decades to come from workers' contributions, are too expensive for the richest country on Earth.

After seven years of condoning pork-barrelling, the president discovers that it is a bad thing and the US economy cannot afford the "earmarks", the pet projects that Congressmen have traditionally funnelled back in their districts. They are half what they were when his party controlled the Congress, and a tiny fraction of his earmark for the war in Iraq.

And in case anyone has forgotten, Osama Bin Laden is still free and uncaught while the process of catching him makes Hunting the Snark seem like rocket science. The bulk of US forces were pulled out of Afghanistan and sent to Iraq, while rattling sabres at Iran.

"We must trust in the wisdom of our founders and empower judges who understand that the constitution means what it says," comes with chutzpah from an administration that has defended and practised torture, imprisonment without trial, wiretapping, and the right of the president to disregard any parts of any act that Congress passes which he does not like.

On one point he inadvertently speaks the truth. He says "We must trust American workers to compete with anyone in the world and empower them by opening up new markets overseas." Indeed, on current trends, they will be earning less than most of their rivals in Asia. Income levels in most other countries are rising. While he has been president, the median income for American working families has dropped by $1,100: there are millions more Americans without health insurance, and below the poverty line. And to make them even more competitive, the US dollar has almost devalued by 45% against the euro, while the trade deficit has doubled.

Motivating his sudden affection for bipartisanship is the hope that Democrat party leaders will forget the previous years of uncompromisingly dismissive diktat from the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill and go along with what he wants. And sadly, enough of them might just do that, and thwart the chances of a real change.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Public Schools- An Education Swindle

From the current edition of Tribune, 25 January
deals with the elitist education system and its origins in, surprise, pillaging the poor.

The report of the Charity Commission on how to implement the “public benefit” provisions of the 2006 Charities Act has provoked an intriguing mixture of indignation and philanthropic endeavour on the part of the public schools.

Eton accused the Charity Commission of "flawed reasoning" and Harrow it had misinterpreted charity law. They claim that it should have taken into account the savings to the government of not educating the public school types, which of course ignores the counter effect of the increased difficulty for state pupils in entering universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, afterwards.

The Act’s biggest apparent change was to extend test of “public benefit” to the other traditional heads of charity: the promotion of religion, education, and the relief of poverty. But this is restitution rather than a revolution. The public schools are morally at least stolen property.

The new guidelines are simply restating a long-standing maxim of Charity Law that no charity could exclude the poor. When a government Commission in 1818 asked it why there were so many rich boys at Winchester, a school founded five centuries earlier d for seventy "poor and needy" scholars, the headmaster replied that the boys were totally without money -- it was their parents who were rich. From the responses to this Commission's report, the excuses have not improved over the centuries.

However, the judges whose decisions have created charity law over the centuries stretched that to breaking point – particularly in the case of public schools, which so many of them attended.

The privileges claimed by the schools are not nearly as ancient as their original obligations as charities. In Victorian times, many of the schools paid tax on their profits. It took years of assiduous lobbying by the Headmasters' Conference before Winston Churchill’s 1927 Finance Act exempted profits from trade if they arose from the primary purpose of the charity.

But that is minor compared with the original sin of elite purloining of ancient foundations begun as endowments for the “education of poor and indigent scholars,” In a striking demonstration of the solidarity and power of the public school boys in parliament, the actual Endowed Schools Act that parliament passed in 1869 totally reversed the direction of the Bill’s original intentions of establishing a modern education system that would equip the nation for the modern world.

Instead it set up an Endowed Schools Commission, which did just what the Headmasters wanted. On their behalf old statutes and trust deeds were set aside, blowing away all the old semi-feudal relics -- like free places for poor scholars, or provision for the education of the local community -- as well as the more necessary removal of restrictions on curricula. Even more shamelessly, the commissioners confiscated charities that provided food and cash for poor families that they regarded as outmoded, and handed them over to the schools.

In effect, they took bread from the mouths and coal from the hearths of the poor to fund schools for the privileged classes. Even more cynically, they made admission to the public schools dependent on “merit,” which they measured by proficiency in Latin or Greek – subjects that the average workers' children were unlikely to study. That led to the development of fee-paying preparatory schools – which were not charities – to prepare. Paying the fees to those, not "merit," was the real entry test to the public institutions. In fact, the Public Schools owe the whole nation huge reparations for their part in creating and perpetuating a ruling elite that was totally unprepared for a modern technological world.

Opponents of the elitist privileges represented by the public schools often call for the withdrawal of charitable status as if it were just a case of tax relief. They are falling into a trap. The title of “Public” schools is not just some quaint British anomaly. The schools are public institutions, charities, even if they have been hijacked and suborned by the upper classes. Indeed the move to call them “Independent” schools was probably intended to break any inconvenient associations with “public” service.

Their charitable status is not just about tax exemption, it is about all the bequests and endowments made to them because they are charities. Withdrawing their charitable status would be privatization without compensation. The appropriate response is to enforce their charitable obligations as the Charity Commission has now decided.

It is hardly that innovatory. As well as drawing upon centuries-old legal principles, the proposal has been both propounded and procrastinated for decades, indeed centuries. For example in 1975, noted that many public schools "were founded not simply for the advancement of education, but specifically for the education of the poor... We believe that our recommendation to make a test of public benefit the over-riding consideration with that of education accords both with the spirit in which our Sixteenth Century public schools were founded and with a widespread public feeling today that charitable activities should not be manifestly devoted to privilege or exclusiveness."

There will be howls of “confiscation” from the public school lobby, but charities have obligations as well as privileges, and in fact, any such plan to open educational and social advantage to the whole of society would be redressing an historic wrong. To incorporate the public schools into a national education system, in whatever form, would be more in the nature of restitution than expropriation. Those grammar schools that the state system incorporated in the seventies and earlier were not the subject of compensation. Similarly, the National Health Service's takeover of the voluntary charitable hospitals in 1948 involved no compensation for the same reason that they were still being used for the same public benefit as before.

Sadly, just as ex public school boys have suborned charity law in the past, the administrative fixes proposed by the 2006 Charity Act, in effect leaving it to the judiciary, are unlikely to end the self-perpetuating elitism that the public schools represent. Most judges are the beneficiaries of public school education themselves. They are unlikely to want to rock the schools’ boat too much.

In 1931 R H Tawney succinctly summed up the main argument against them. "The idea that differences of educational opportunity among children should depend upon differences in wealth among parents is barbaric." The solution has to be a new Endowed Schools Act,, in which parliament (itself heavily populated by public school alumni but at least directly accountable) sets out an agenda for the schools that reflects their original purposes and the present social needs. In the meantime, the guidelines are step towards correction of the great school robbery of a previous era.

Ian Williams wrote the "Alms Trade: Charities Past Present and Future" published originally by Unwin Hyman, reprinted last year by Cosimo Press which has two chapters on education and charity.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

How much for a pound of flesh -full text

Last week the state of New York moved towards its revenge on the body-snatchers - the ghoulish gang that plundered corpses of transplant material on their way to the crematorium.

Certainly they deserve severe punishment for their clinical ineptitude, which included selling bones from bone-cancer victims, but if they hadn't been so sloppy, one has to wonder if this were not, in essence, a victim-free crime.

Alistair Cooke, the famous journalist whose bones were disturbed by the ghouls would probably have been very pleased to think that he could help someone else live - but equally very displeased with the idea that others may catch cancer because of the greed of the ghouls.

Those who opt for cremation tend not to pay much heed to the idea of bodily resurrection and it raises the question of who actually owns our earthly remains. My father for example left his body to Liverpool School of Medicine, which refused to accept it because, they told me, they only took "healthy bodies". It was an intriguing concept, since most cadavers of my acquaintance have been terminally unhealthy, but it was, a term of art which presumably applies to transplants as well as dissection.

The philosopher John Harris once posed a thought experiment to solve the problem of organ shortages: a lottery would pick which person who would be sacrificed to save others, and since more people would live as a result, society as a whole would be enhanced by the exercise. But not even Ron Paul has taken up the idea.

Different countries have different strokes. Reputedly, transplant hospitals in China are close to execution grounds, ensuring a steady supply of "healthy bodies" for dismemberment. In countries with civilised healthcare systems, altruism rules. Donors and doctors give their organs and services pro bono publico. But that does not work in more robustly entrepreneurial economies.

My father's main concern was to stop the undertakers' making a profit from his corpse, and in similar vein, I must say that my only compunction about filling in the organ donation section on my driving license is that in the US, so many people, doctors, hospitals, insurance companies and others, would make a killing, if you forgive the expression, from any of the organs that my dissolute lifestyle have left fit for transplant.

In the US, the alleged bastion of property rights, religious obscurantism is robbing American citizens of their birthright. Everyone, no matter how poor, is wandering around with some quarter of a million dollars worth of transplant material: but because of the 1984 National Organ Transplantation Act, they cannot cash in their chips.

The surgeons and hospitals of America can charge an arm and a leg for hoisting out hearts and replanting them, and it seems some morticians can eke out their bottom line on the side, but the donors have no financial incentive whatsoever. Talk about a "death tax!" This no mere Republican rhetorical trope - it's the real thing. The federal government, almost unchallenged, has deprived us of the usufruct of our most personal property.

Adam Smith's invisible hand is just waiting to be transplanted into this field. Of course you may object that it is difficult for a cadaver to take profits from such a sale, but think futures. If bankers can sell stinkers like collateralised debt obligations, they should easily be able to devise an actuarially advised organ options market which would make a return for the living, and help a return to life for those in need of the spare parts.

The principle is the same as the viaticals market in which for example, HIV sufferers were able to cash in their life insurance early so they could enjoy the proceeds while still alive.

The people who would rush to sell organ futures would very likely also be those who are least likely to have a private pension scheme and who would benefit most from topping up their social security funds.

If the government really must get involved, it could help solve the alleged social security crisis by insisting that at least some, if not all, of the proceeds, would be invested in some sort of individual retirement account, but a cash handout would also help boost the recession-verging economy by putting money into the hands of people who would rush out and spend it.

Once the market is up and running, we would see that old invisible hand in operation, matching supply and demand and fixing appropriate prices for organs and tissue, going beyond the old barter economics of a cornea for a cornea. We would see the rapid development of a spot market, of derivatives, futures, hedging. Investors could go long or short on the organ of their choice. At last we would get a serious price for a pound of flesh.

Rescind the US organ transplant act now, and save America!

Friday, January 18, 2008

No way to heaven, but at least missing Hell

My column in this week's Tribune, on the primaries.

After a year, the final decisive round of the great Primary Circus is upon us. Last week the best-qualified Democratic candidate for the presidency dropped out. Bill Richardson had been a congressman, ambassador to the UN, Energy Secretary and Governor of New Mexico, in between being a negotiator with the North Koreans. His thoughtful policies, on global warming, and pulling out of Iraq for example, were clear and explicit, unlike the evasions and temporizing of most of the other candidates.

While the headline writers stressed Barack Obama’s race and Hillary Clinton’s gender, they all overlooked the fact that Richardson was Hispanic – half Mexican, which was in itself groundbreaking. However, he lacked one essential qualification: money. The media and the TV networks that are the prime beneficiaries of the hundreds of millions of dollars that the candidates raised would not accept him as a major candidate without corporate backing on a huge scale. The sums that the Labour Party deputy leadership campaigns raised would not buy a single TV spot in an American primary. Indeed, they are literally a thousandth of the amounts that the American front-runners solicited. They represent a massive IOU to corporate America on the part of the Democrats.

When I spoke to him recently, the Senate’s only avowed Socialist, Bernie Sanders, gave his preference as John Edwards first, Obama second, and Hillary Clinton last. While the unions and many more progressive Democrats are indeed supporting Edwards, who is voicing what one might call “Old Democrat” values, the media have concentrated on Hillary and Obama. That could reflect their charisma, but it only takes a soupcon of paranoia to wonder whether an underlying reason is to ensure a Democratic candidate almost guaranteed to excite negative feelings among voters. For example, while the Iowa caucuses, which mobilize Democratic activists, voted for Obama, the New Hampshire vote, which is open to anyone who registers as a Democrat, reversed what they told the pollsters before about supporting him. That does suggest a large degree of latent racial prejudice, observed before, where conflicted white voters claim to be voting for a black candidate when polled, but in the safety of the voting booth cannot bring themselves to do so.

Even so, while Obama is clearly a fresh voice, one should not be too dewy-eyed about him – he has shown distressing signs of learning from the Clinton school of political contortionism. Hillary herself excites paroxysms of vituperation and misogyny from conservatives, to the extent of gaining a feminist backlash. The irony is, of course, that her own policies on almost every issue are actually very conservative, reflecting her funding base from Wall St. Hillary Clinton’s career suggests that for her, it is the advancement of one woman that matters, and that the uninsured mothers on welfare will have to sink and swim without too much in the way of sisterly support.

However, what could induce even the most jaundiced anti-Clintonista to vote for her in general election is the Republican ticket. Most of them were bad to start with, but their efforts to win the support of the Evangelical and wacko right have most of them choking on their own words. What will be even more nauseating will be watching them regurgitate their more recent verbal mastications as they try to retriangulate back to the centre after securing the nomination with the wacko votes. Outstanding in this respect is John McCain, who five years ago was the victim of Karl Rove’s dirty tricks, and who showed some independence and integrity, which he has now traded for the support of the Republican leadership, which is of course concerned about the prospects off the rest of the field.

Who can blame them? Think of Rudolf Giuliani who preached Catholic family values while announcing his impending divorce at a press conference, without telling her, and who busily disappearing up his own rectum as promises to stack the Supreme Court with anti-abortion and anti-gay justices even though not holding those positions himself. Mike Huckabee, a creationist, has equally faith-based views on economics, wanting to abolish income tax, while Mitt Romney, a Mormon, does a jig on a Moronic angel pinhead as he explains his vision of a faith based America that evades some major points of his theology. In this context, the campaign of Ron Paul, the libertarian Texas Congressman, is almost refreshing. He does not triangulate at all. He puts his programmes up on a pole and rallies supporters by the hundreds of thousands. Ordinary Americans have given his campaign an amazing amount of money. He does not get corporate support, and Murdoch’s Fox excluded him from their screens and debates, thus alienating a vociferous group who had hitherto slavishly supported Fox News through its decade of distortion and libel of Democrats. His grass roots campaign certainly pulls in the wackos but his populist, anti big government, not to mention anti-war, policies reveal a fissure line in the working class white vote that an astute Democrat could appeal to.

One of the purposes or at least an effect of recent Primaries has been for Democratic candidates to render each other unelectable. This year the effect will be stronger on the Republican side, where ideology rather than pragmatic policies are the chosen grounds for challenge. In end, the race is for the Democrats, which after two disastrous Bush terms has to be a step forward. To paraphrase what an American Secretary of State said about the UN, a Democratic victory may stop us going to Hell, but is unlikely to advance us far towards Heaven.

Alaska and the UN!

Here's my talk to the Alaska World Affairs Council in Anchorage, on the UN, with a sideline on Rum, of course!
AWAC Presents: Ian Williams
By Kristin Spack
... Williams explains why the UN is “the worst possible system in the world… except for all of the alternatives.” Ian Williams: Author, Writer, Speaker; Ian Williams: More columns than Parthenon; Ian Williams Blog: Deadline Pundit ...
KSKA Public Radio - http://kska.org/

Thursday, January 17, 2008

The World According to Wall St - full text

Foreign Policy magazine in the US complains this month that "in France and Germany, students are being forced to undergo a dangerous indoctrination. Taught that economic principles such as capitalism, free markets and entrepreneurship are savage, unhealthy and immoral, these children are raised on a diet of prejudice and bias. Rooting it out may determine whether Europe's economies prosper or continue to be left behind."

The article, written by Newsweek's European economics chief Stefan Theil, is titled Europe's Philosophy of Failure. In fact, Europe is doing quite well by any objective measures, and it seems somewhat counterfactual to cluck on in this unbalanced way just as the US economy, buoyed only by a continuing flood of Chinese money, teeters
on the edge of a crash, as subprime mortgages and derivatives trading erode the financial foundations of Wall Street.

Undaunted by reality, Foreign Policy continues complaining about Germany and France:

Millions of children are being raised on prejudice and disinformation. Educated in schools that teach a skewed ideology, they are exposed to a dogma that runs counter to core beliefs shared by many other western countries. They study from textbooks filled with a doctrine of dissent ... . Extracting these children from the jaws of bias could mean the difference between world prosperity and menacing global rifts.

Shocked, shocked, as only the country that gave the world Enron, the savings and loan scandal and the almost obligatory half-billion-dollar CEO golden parachute can be, the magazine inveighs: "In both France and Germany, for instance, schools have helped ingrain a serious aversion to capitalism. In one 2005 poll, just 36% of French citizens
said they supported the free-enterprise system ... . In Germany, meanwhile, support for socialist ideals is running at all-time highs - 47% in 2007 versus 36% in 1991."

Portentously the article concludes: "A biased view of economics feeds into many of the world's most vexing problems, from the growth of populism to the global rise of anti-American, anti-capitalist attitudes."

This unsubstantiated prejudice masquerading as economic analysis is pervasive in the US business world. I once interviewed the CEO of an American company that had subsidiaries in Holland and Scotland. He complained that in Holland he had to provide six weeks holiday for the staff and six months of paid sick leave. And although it was not so bad in Scotland, it was far worse than in the US, where he only had to offer two weeks vacation and 10 days sick leave.

I asked him which were his most productive and profitable plants. Holland, Scotland and the US last, he replied. And he could not see the connection. This quasi-theological horror of creeping "socialism" permeates American business, whose leaders have a vision of a Europe mired in perpetual recession.

A country that had built its prosperity behind high tariff walls, with huge government subsidies and infrastructural investments, has spent decades preaching the opposite to a waiting world. George Bush senior had the integrity to call it voodoo economics. The Russians listened and were only rescued from their economic folly when Bush junior's wars quadrupled the price of oil.

The same week that Theil's diatribe was published, the Oxford Economics consultancy calculated that Britain - National Health Service and mandatory holidays notwithstanding - has outstripped the US in terms of GDP per capita. In fact the figures probably understate European living standards compared with the US. While actual workers' income in the US has been stagnant for 30 years and in fact has declined under President Bush, American politicians and business executives have conspired for decades to ensure that the proceeds of the growth in the US economy have flowed overwhelmingly to a tiny

In Germany and France, as well as Britain, there is near universal health coverage, and incomes and employment have been growing steadily. The "stagnant" German economy, in taking over East Germany, did the equivalent of the US incorporating Mexico and giving a dollar per peso, and it still grew.

So, serious magazines should really have articles about the amazing country that persuades its students and voters that it has the best health system in the world, when over 45 million of its citizens have no coverage, another 20 million have inadequate coverage and most working people's insurance is effectively revocable at the caprice of greedy executives. They should be pointing out that the US comes 29th in life expectancy, which may also have something to do with the complete absence of legal holidays, statutory paid maternity leave and one in four children in the world's biggest economy living in poverty.

The official excuse for those bloated CEO pay packages is that they make the US economy more productive - but the US comes below "socialistic" Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Switzerland in global competitiveness.

Journalists should really analyse a media and education system that persuades voters that its economy leads the world in growth, when all the proceeds are funnelled to the top 1% of the population; that thinks that tax cuts for that 1% help ordinary Americans prosper; or that it is a "death tax", killing enterprise, for Paris Hilton to pay a percentage of her multimillion-dollar legacy to the IRS.

There are indeed lessons that Europe can learn from the US, but, when the reflexive prejudices are discounted, the statistics suggest that there would be much for Americans to learn from Europe, above all that the road to economic success does not entail widening inequality and impoverishing the working population.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Friday, January 11, 2008

Practising What We Preach, full text

For three days this week representatives of Polisario and Morocco secluded themselves in Manhasset in the New York suburbs, allegedly in an attempt to reach a solution to the western Sahara issue. At stake was not just the fate of the half of the Saharawis baking in desert exile and the other half suffering consistent Moroccan occupation and repression, but whether international law actually has any force or meaning in the 21st century.

However, the talks were not about solving, but about evading, the real issue, which is Morocco's persistent refusal to abide by international law, UN decisions or its own promises and the refusal of the United Nations and its members to enforce them.

No country recognises Moroccan ownership of the territory, not least since a long series of UN resolutions in the general assembly and the security council have declared that the people of the former Spanish colony of western Sahara should be allowed to determine their own fate. Morocco quibbled, and got the UN to ask the International Court of Justice to rule on the issue in 1974. The court ruled against Morocco and said there should be an act of self-determination.

In 1975, Morocco and Mauritania carved up the territory from which Spain had made an undignified exit. While Madrid did not officially hand the territory over, it almost certainly cut a deal with Rabat in return for silence about the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla on the coast of Morocco.

While the US voted for the unanimous security council resolutions deploring the Moroccan invasion, US ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan revealed in his memoirs: "The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success."

For 15 years, the issue simmered in guerrilla warfare until the end of the cold war seemed to open a window. I remember the press conference at the UN back in 1990 when Johannes Manz, the first head of Minurso, the peacekeeping mission intended to supervise a referendum and ceasefire, announced that it would all be settled in a year.

The Moroccans had accepted a referendum, and he explained that the Spanish census taken just before they had left was the definitive basis for the voter's rolls. I asked him then whether he had consulted the King of Morocco on this point, since his majesty was already making it plain that the only vote he would tolerate was one that he would win.

The current and previous kings of Morocco have repeatedly declared their support for a referendum, but have always reneged in the end since no one disputes that the result would be independence. Indeed, Morocco would not even accept the plan produced by former US Secretary of State James Baker, which would have allowed Moroccan settlers in the territory to vote, presumably because the King suspects that they too could support independence.

France, which so memorably upheld international law in the run up to the Iraq invasion, has been consistently shameless in its shilling for Morocco. The US has now joined France more actively. Morocco is Israel's closest friend in the Arab world and has positioned itself as an ally in the war on terrorism.

The UK has no dog in the fight, but did once at least have scruples about actively aiding and abetting an egregious breach of international law, not to mention the multiple breaches of human rights that Morocco perpetrates both at home and in western Sahara.

Since the Iraq invasion washed out the vestiges of Robin Cook's ethical dimension to British foreign policy, the UK is no longer concerned about quarrels in a "far-away country between people of whom we know nothing". That means that three permanent members of the security council are now actively working to force the Saharawis to accede to Moroccan occupation.

But there is plenty of blame to go round. The UN secretariat over the years has proven shamelessly invertebrate about implementing UN resolutions. It may of course just be oversight that the Minurso website omits mention of the security resolutions condemning the occupation and the ICJ decision, but over the decades many UN officials have knuckled under to Moroccan blandishments and pressure. Certainly no secretary general has had the temerity to confront Morocco for its outright defiance of international law and UN resolutions.

The troika of France, the US and the UK, should be forcibly reminded that they cannot expect to sermonise the rest of the world about international law when they connive with Morocco's lawlessness. Let the Saharawis vote.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Practising What You Preach

My latest take on Western Sahara now on the Guardian site
and greetings from Juneau, capital of Alaska, where I am admiring the rapidly shrinking Mindenhall Glacier.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Devil of a Time, full text

Perhaps the best sign that Satan is hard at work is that over the holidays most of the British tabloids carried the story that the Vatican was setting up exorcism squads in each see to counter a global upsurge in Satanism. Clearly it was diabolical journalism since none of them checked with the actual Vatican press office, which, if not infallible, is presumably reliable and discounted the claims of the 82-year-old exorcist in chief which all the newspapers reported, seemingly based on faith alone.

But even if the Pope is not setting up anti-Satan squads just yet, he has declared his belief in the existence of the evil entity, and since the holy father is infallible, we must assume that Tony Blair's recent declaration of allegiance to Roman Catholicism means that he also thinks that Lucifer stalks the globe - and probably also that he was spotted recently in Baghdad, sporting a big moustache not far from the original Garden of Eden. Last we heard though, neither the church's catechism nor the Anglicans' 39 articles had WMDs in Iraq as an article of faith.

Christian theology borrowed the concept of the evil one from the Persians, who at least thought it was a fair fight between light and dark but the church fathers had to reconcile this inheritance with an omnipotent deity - and used Satan to square the circle of why a good God would allow suffering on such a scale.

But Satan's role has always been confusing. For example, no one has ever satisfactorily explained why Satan should fall in with God's vindictive plans on the eternal hellfire-for-sinners front. Why should he cooperate with a vindictive scheme to frighten humanity into doing his rival's bidding? If he is a real rebel, and he is supposed to be diabolically cunning, Satan should surely let the good times roll for those who followed his bidding, and leave po-faced eternity to the pious.

When writing Paradise Lost, for example, John Milton was clearly rather taken with the rebellious Satan, and did a rather better job of explaining his insurgent manifesto than he did of "explaining the works of God to man".

But if we see Satan as the trickster, armed with a wicked sense of humour, the 21st century almost makes sense. Who else could persuade so many of the leading American presidential candidates to get their fingers on the nuclear button to believe so many impossible things before the primaries?

Evangelical Mike Huckabee thinks the world began 6,000 years ago, while Mormon Mitt Romney believes that tribes of Israelites were battling it out with Indians in North America and that the record of this event was discovered in upstate New York by someone who could translate it with the aid of a seer stone but sadly forgot where he filed the original.

It makes Ron Paul's eccentric views on taxation, slavery and the role of government seem quite sane by comparison. But while commentators feel free to criticise Paul's off-the-wall ideas, and in so far as they notice, Dennis Kucinich's brush with aliens, it is somehow forbidden to question a candidate's theological faith.

Yet while mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani professed a belligerently tribal Catholicism even as he blithely divorced his wife at a press conference with neither the act nor the venue being close to what the Cardinal ordered.

This omerta about personal "faith", unless it is one eccentric cultist calling hellfire on another, is puzzling, since all the leading candidates profess some religious affiliation, so we can conclude either that they all believe some variant of the official Christian dogma, or that they are in fact closet agnostics whose religious adherence is a politically expedient membership in some sort of do-gooding deist equivalent of a Rotary club.

Satan has to be laughing in his eternally hedonistic hell if the competition for the power to launch the apocalypse is between the bonkers and the banal. If the candidates' faith means anything at all, then of course it will influence their political actions. And conversely, if they are hedging, then their hypocrisy will reflect on their behaviour in office. Maybe we should write in the Vicar of Bray as the most honestly shameless candidate.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Up To Our Eyes in CRAP

This is my Speculator Column from the October issue of Investor Relations Magazine, written during the summer when it was a joking matter. No longer!


The continuing tsunami of Chinese cash into the US and global financial system has helped create an insatiable demand for new financial instruments that offer long-term security and returns to mop up the flood of liquidity. The banking sector rose to the challenge with its characteristic ingenuity by inventing 'Collateralized Mortgage Obligations,' the financial equivalent of quantum indeterminacy. Money managers, bankers, and many other investors rapidly seized upon CMO's, before the idea became unfathomably unfashionable this year.

Much has been written about the slicing and dicing, the tranches, the algorithmic acrobatics that the sector undertook to package and resell dubious loans for overpriced properties to under-salaried borrowers. A banker friend of mine in his sixties was delighted to be offered a 30 year fixed interest mortgage on his property. His reaction was the same as a patient of my former doctor who had just tested HIV positive at the age of 86. When our mutual doctor began his set-piece speech warning that he might only have 15 years to live, the aging Lothario promptly responded with a question, 'Promise?'

But quite apart from collateral beneficiaries like my banking friend, the CMO's were a triumph of globalization. For example, German bankers, who would have shown the door to any down at heel inner city resident of Frankfurt who knocked on their door asking for a loan, were eager to assume decades-long responsibility for the loan for a ghetto dweller in New Orleans whose home was a fathom or two below the Mississippi water table. The bonds were being sold globally as long-term instruments when on the ground brokers were fostering continual churning of mortgages among borrowers eager to get lower interest rates.

Although, with the customary lemming-like solidarity of the financial community, investors are now pulling out of CMO's with the same alacrity that they were earlier buying into them, there is still, notwithstanding the fads and fashions of capricious investment bankers, a need for stable long-term financial instruments. Standing on the shoulders of others, like most geniuses, I would like to offer a refinement of the CMO's. I propose 'Collateralized Recently-owned Auto Promises,' or CRAP's, as people will inevitably call them.

All across the United States people take out bank loans and get credit from car dealers to buy used cars. This represents collateral every bit as sound as the flakey modular homes in dubious sub-prime hotspots. There are risks in selling instruments backed by collateral of uncertain worth, and on debtors of uncertain risk, but no one seemed to notice when the CMO's were introduced. And so we think that the CRAP will go down well in view of the insatiable historical appetite for such products. Consider what people swallowed with the CMO.

The program is also virtuous from a macro-economic point of view. Along with construction, the auto industry is the gyroscope of the US economy. Just as the demand for new homes is predicated on people being able to sell their existing properties, the US auto industry depends up the buying and selling of previously owned cars. After homes, cars are the single most expensive consumer product that Americans buy, so it is essential for the economic welfare of the nation that there should be ample liquidity in the used car business, while meeting the demand for high-paying paper for brokers and investment managers to palm off on their clients.

There is an obvious synergy here. The skills that enabled these highly paid and motivated bankers to sell CMO's are precisely those that are traditionally associated with the second-hand car salesperson: a robust emphasis on the up-side of the transaction with a scorn for pessimistic downside details.

There is a lot of scope for creative selling of Collateralized Recently-owned Auto Promises, and I have little doubt that before long everyone will have forgotten how they turned up their noses at CMO's and we will all be up to our eyes in CRAP.

To See Ourselves As Others See Us

My review of John Bolton's book in Chatham House's "World Today"

Ian Williams

In no way is John Bolton's lengthy book a cerebral consideration of American foreign policy, although those intrigued by why that policy has so often been confused and contradictory will find enlightenment in this obsessively detailed memoir of Washington infighting and United Nations pugilistics. There is much on how policy on Korea, Iran and UN reform came about, but little on why. His Manichaean view divides the world between those who support the United States and everybody else. Almost reassuringly, the long list of implied anti-Americans begins inside his own country, and indeed his own administration: ‘Eastern Elitists’, State Department' careerists’, the ‘High Minded’, the ‘True Believers’, the‘EAPeasers’ (State Department East Asia and Pacific staffers), and eventually those whom the ‘Risen Bureaucrats' seduced – Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice – and, although he avoids direct criticism, President George Bush.

As the little boy calling into question the imperial wardrobe, he evokes some sympathy as he berates ‘EUroids’, and ‘the EU’s proclivity to avoid confronting and actuallyrecognising problems’. Similarly his exasperation with the sausage-making machine of US policy and the UN ‘process' that substitutes ‘consensus’ or the ‘unity of the Council’ for actual results, will resonate with anyone who observed the Balkans’ resolution-strewn trail to Srebrenica, or now, Khartoum's juggling with resolutions and statements. But such limited appreciation fades in the face of his partisanship. He had no compunction about using the same processes to get his own way. Belabouring the tediously consensual processes of the UN, he reveals his real grouse: ‘consensus’ was supposed to mean that the US was satisfied. He genuinely cannot see that other members could claim an equal right to paralyse decision-making. As he complains, the Human Rights Council certainly fails to live up to expectations, but a major reason for that is Bolton's active sabotage of European Union efforts to negotiate and subsequent American abstention from involvement. Disturbingly, Bolton describes UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon’s wholesale adoption of his agenda for UN reform, but more reassuringly, he also notes that this did not survive his own departure from the UN when it became clear that he would not get confirmation from the US Congress.


Above all, his book should inform over-fond adherents of the' Special Relationship’. Pervading it is visceral contempt for Britain and its representatives, especially when they disagree with him. Like the former UN Ambassador Emyr Jones Parry, who makes him doubt how Britain won an Empire but explains why it lost America, and indeed for Jones Parry’s successor John Sawers and former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. He sneers, ‘Many Brits believed their role in life was to play Athens to America’s Rome, lending us the benefit of their superior suaveness, and smoothing off our regrettable colonial rough edges.’ Former Prime Minister Tony Blair's loyalty to the Bush administration gets no thanks whatsoever. Among the few he praises is UN Special Representative, Terje Roed-Larsen of Norway, whose ‘propensity for speaking his mind’ was ‘always a source of delight to me.' The delight was not for ‘speaking truth to power’, but because Roed-Larsen fought tenaciously for the American view of the Middle East inside former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s administration. Similar outspokenness from the ‘petty bureaucrat’, Mark Malloch Brown – British swell! – and Annan himself, provoked petulant rage. Bolton's vigorous pursuit of national self-interest was not in itself innovative, but his rejection of the normal forms of alliance building and negotiation to pursue those interests was. His book is a Parthian machine gun salvo at the ‘Risen Bureaucrats’ of the State Department who defeated him, with their view that US interests are best served by recognising that other countries can have their own interests, and still be allies – if you listen to them. Bolton famously did sticks, not carrots. And got diplomatic peanuts in return.

Surrender Is Not an Option’ by John Bolton, Threshold Editions, ISBN-13:978-1-4165-5284-0 $27/£18.

Redder than the real thing: full text

Redder than the real thing

Taiwan's brand of democratic socialism succeeds and improves on the Chinese model

Ian Williams
Thursday January 3, 2008
The Guardian

The leaders of China move into 2008 in celebratory mood in anticipation of this summer's Olympics - the culmination of two decades of unprecedented growth. The scale of that economic achievement has blunted criticism of the democracy deficit that is in inverse proportion to the payment surplus. But it is legitimate to ask how the "people" are doing in the people's republic. China's disparities of wealth and power are now greater than anywhere else in the world, even though most of its trading partners are prepared to shrug off the poverty and lack of democracy as the inescapable cost of growth or of some mystic Confucian cultural trait.

Ironically, across the straits, Taiwan shows that it is possible to combine prosperity and democracy, and indeed practice socialism - or at least European style social democracy - in a Chinese culture. Indeed we know it must be so, since Condoleezza Rice has just criticized Taiwan for wanting to hold a democratic referendum on its own future.

This is a turnaround. For years, based on a traditional reflexive anti-communism, American rightists were vociferous supporters of Taiwan. Needless to say, a paleo-conservative such as John Bolton speaking on Taiwan's behalf does not really do much to win support for the island from the left, many of whom already suffer from a historical hangover based on their former support for the mainland's claims for international recognition against Chiang Kai-shek's defeated rump "Republic of China", which had fled to the island.

One has to wonder whether Bolton knows that Taiwan is more like one of the European social democracies that he and his conservative friends hate so much. Chiang has long gone and Taiwan is far more socialist in every real sense than the alleged "people's" republic, whose people get shot for joining unions, organising strikes, or voicing opinions their government does not like.

With universal literacy, Taiwan has a vigorous and demanding media, free of the censorship and imprisonment that greets the unauthorised disclosure of information on the mainland. It is introducing a national pension scheme, even as Bolton's pals keep struggling to dismantle the US's social security system. It has unemployment insurance and social welfare programmes with none of the draconian welfare-for-work measures that Bill Clinton introduced under conservative pressure.

To be fair, many on the left are just as hidebound as Bolton. In the old days, leftists of the kind that could overlook purges, gulags, mass famines and bullets in skulls could point to China's advances in literacy, healthcare and the "iron rice bowl" guaranteed for workers as "actually existing socialism".

To maintain that illusion, they now have to close their eyes not only to the lack of democracy and human rights in mainland China, but to the disappearance of medical services and social welfare programmes under the new post-Mao regime. Indeed, the untold millions of migratory workers whose muscles are fuelling Chinese economic expansion do not have the most elementary rights, not even the assured right to live in the cities in which they toil.

Whatever passed for "socialist" in the Chinese Communist party agenda has been thrown overboard, to be replaced by a nationalist and militarist doctrine threatening to "reunify" Taiwan by force - whether its people like it or not.

In fact, the Taiwanese clearly do not want it, as repeated elections have shown. In Taiwan, not only is Chiang dead, his old party introduced free elections, and lost them.

Democratic socialists and supporters of democracy should support Taiwan in its bid for (social) democratic expression, free of the peculiar cocktail of unfettered capitalism and Beria-like political repression of the mainland. Certainly in the old Labour party sense, Taiwan is much redder than China - indeed, in terms of income distribution, its record is better than New Labour's.


Thursday, January 03, 2008

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Kristol Clear on the Right

Guardian Comment is Free, full text,

1 January 2008
I am all in favour of a good verbal punch up, and have often played the role of liberal lion thrown to the Christian Right, (indeed not always "Christian right") on the likes of Fox News. The rules of the arena are usually refreshingly simple. The conservative anchor always has the last word, and often brings on tag teams of alleged experts for the baiting. All you have to do is to confound their prejudices - expressing dislike for Clinton and or Albright usually throws them off completely, allowing a few facts to enter the debate while they try to reprogram.

But conservative newspapers rarely if ever allow a left or liberal voice unmoderated, unchallenged or unanchored on their pages - which probably accounts for the wails of horror from the American left at the news that the New York Times has engaged Bill Kristol as a regular columnist.

However, this should only be a shock to the deranged conservative bloggers and Fox pundits who think that the Gray Lady is a liberal publication. In fact, to have a hereditary joke like Kristol on board is entirely fitting for a newspaper that for so many years tolerated "Out of my mind" Abe Rosenthal as the regular conduit for neoconservativism. One of my favorites was the one where he described Kofi Annan as "Saddam Hussein's greatest single asset at the UN."

There is a circularity in Abe's son, Andy Rosenthal, the NYT's editorial page director, now appointing Bill, the son of Irving Kristol, the former Trotskyist who coined neoconservativism with its twin faces, that Israel could no wrong and the Soviet Union no right.

The New York Times always pretended to a spurious objectivity in its news pages, claiming to keep analysis and commentary to the op-ed page, but the Judith Miller escapades rather dented that "just the facts" posture, revealing the "never mention inconvenient facts."

But the contract really does defy logic. Kristol, deservedly known as "Quayle's Brain," is a light weight, recidividist wrongist, whose magazine, the Weekly Standard, makes massive losses for Rupert Murdoch, its owner. These conservatives go on about market disciplines, but it is noteworthy how many of their thinktanks and publications - the Standard, the New York Sun, the National Review - depend on the kindness of strangers to reason, eccentric billionaires with political agendas. Their minute circulation suggests little or no backing in the marketplace, but their editors and pundits are elevated by all that patronage to slots on Fox and the rest of the conservative echo chamber. How else could someone like Kristol still get a platform for his Panglossian view of the Iraq invasion? I really suspect that if Murdoch endowed the Flat Earth Society, his organs would soon carry solemn pundits exposing the myth of Columbus and the moon landings.

There was a time when newspapers felt that the sound of a rabid rightist dog barking on their editorial page was necessary to keep up with the Murdochs, but the Financial Times, for example, realized that the likes of Amity Shlaes gave the editors too much work to do. The newspaper is much improved by her absence.

In contrast, the Wall Street Journal, perhaps with the prophetic aberration of Christopher Hitchens, has never really felt compelled to find a liberal commentator to balance its columns. Amid all the gasps of horror at Murdoch's acquisition of the Journal, one really has to puzzle how he could shift the op-ed pages any further to the right. Indeed, one rather suspects that whenever his commercial and political interests dictate, he may even push them towards sanity and bring them down from the extraplanetary ideological orbit they are now parked in.

Murdoch will almost certainly have a similar baleful effect on the Journal's news coverage as he has on his other acquisitions, but since his aim is to sink the New York Times, I would not be entirely surprised if he were to bring on board some more balanced columnists for the WSJ.

And that raises the question of why Murdoch's targeted victim, the New York Times, should hire the continuing editor of a News Corporation publication as a columnist, when its readers certainly have not asked for it. One hopes they have budgeted for extra fact checkers as well.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Kristol Balls Up

Happy New Year!
From the snowbound Catskills, in between digging out the drive way, I managed to celebrate the new year with a new column on the New York Times anilingual attitude to the conservatives. See Guardian Comment is Free