Friday, 14 August 2009

From healthcare to climate bill - not grassroots but Astroturf

Efforts to disguise co-ordinated campaigns by interested groups as apparently spontaneous public reactions are called astroturfing, after the artificial turf used on sports pitches, not to be confused with genuine grassroots. The anti-Obama, anti-National Health Service rhetoric is a case in point. It is diverting attention from what healthcare insurers do not want people to know: medical bills cause more bankruptcies in the USA than any other cause.
Hard on the heels of the healthcare astroturfing we can apparently expect for the rest of this month a series of so-called “Energy Citizen” rallies across 20 States of the USA, to which employees of oil companies and other rentacrowds will be bussed at the expense of the American Petroleum Institute with the aim of influencing US Senators to oppose the climate bill and the Obama administration’s tax increases on the oil industry.
At the rallies, the API participants will push two messages: job losses and energy cost increases. Participants will apparently be given extended lunch hours for this purpose and supplied with free refreshments in the form of junk food and drink.
In a leaked email that I have downloaded, the API has told member companies: “your facility manager’s commitment to provide significant attendance—is essential to achieving the participation level that Senators cannot ignore.”
As I said, consider the source.
Got your pinch of salt ready, everyone?

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Consider the source

Earlier this week I read a piece about the “revolting” use of “manipulative language” by the present government in order to “inspire fear” concerning Britain’s food security and prepare us all for Stalinist intervention with a view to imposing vegetarianism. (No, it was not in the Daily Mail: I don’t read the rag.) Naturally this brought on a panic attack, but I managed to recover enough to go online and find the culprit publication apparently referred to.
It is a report by DEFRA which gets right down to business in paragraph two with the sentence: “By any objective measure, we enjoy a high degree of food security in the UK today.” Are you frightened yet?
The report (entitled UK Food Security Assessment: Our Approach, available on DEFRA's website) strikes me as a sober and thoughtful document which is well worth reading by anyone seriously interested in public policy.
On the other hand, dear reader, if you are not seriously interested in public policy then by all means go on believing second-hand, or more remote, regurgitation of what is actually stated. And do by all means blog about it. Just don’t expect me to bother reading it.
While studying for the law, one of the best bits of advice I received, which I in turn like to pass on, was: never cite a case you haven't read.
Moral: consider the source.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

"Corner" is not the name of a size

As a character in the sci-fi novel Perelandra said, "corner" is not the name of a size. So a small event can be a corner for the world. A corner was turned in a Burma courtroom when a small frail lady crossed the room and told reporters that she looked forward to working with them for the sake of her country, freedom and world peace. The small lady brushed off the generals, the sham trial and the sham conviction as if fluff on her collar. She, the convicted defendant, became the judge. It is as if she said the generals will fall, as every tyranny does in the end. How it happens is obscure but fall they will because they have no legitimacy and no friends, and have killed so many good and innocent people. However that may be, the generals are going, and so the small lady did not speak of them, but contemplated what lies beyond, exemplifying the spirit of the Burmese people which I so admire. I think we, as members of the international community, should do whatever the Burmese opposition asks to help bring their freedom about.

Friday, 7 August 2009

The City of London - where all bankers and lawyers are above average?

The Lake Wobegon effect was proposed some months ago as an explanation for Chief Executives' ever-increasing pay in the US. In Lake Wobegon (Garrison Keillor's fictitious town), all the children are above average.
The way it works is that all corporate boards want their executives to be above average. That cannot possibly be the case for everyone, but not to worry. Markets run on investor confidence and perception, so if a company gives its executives above average pay and bonuses, they will look above average, and this will make the company look strong. Hence an upward pay spiral.
Warren Buffett wrote in 2007: "CEO perks at one company are quickly copied elsewhere. “All the other kids have one” may seem a thought too juvenile to use as a rationale in the boardroom. But consultants employ precisely this argument, phrased more elegantly of course, when they make recommendations to comp committees."
Once the public has rumbled this, why don't companies get off the bandwagon and pay their executives a moderate reward for the job? Because, according to the analysis, a company that pays its executives moderately could be perceived as admitting that they are only average or below, which would harm its share price.
Taking this a bit further, it is argued that if lower-paid executives were in fact above average, they would have been poached by a company that is willing to pay more. So any executive that is lower-paid can't be above average.
But, I wonder to myself, as there are only so many banking jobs in existence, and if a lot of them are already occupied by average-or-below executives whose merits have been talked up by means of high pay, who are not going to be fired because that would involve the company admitting having been wrong, nor are they going to move in a hurry since they are already getting more pay than they merit, how do vacancies come up? Over to you, dear reader.
As I see it, the essential problem is that everyone involved in this process treats pay level as evidence of performance quality rather than looking at the actual performance itself. But looking at the actual performance is more complicated and difficult as well as presenting confidentiality problems, so most investors, I suppose, do not bother.
The Lake Wobegon effect has been blamed for the preposterous sums paid to some of the UK's top bankers who, it is now painfully obvious, were in fact worse than useless.
A similar thing happens in both branches of the English legal profession where lawyers with the chutzpah to demand silly money for their services often get it. This is then cited as evidence of brilliance.
It sounds a lot of nonsense doesn't it? Yet it is still happening.

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Men are to blame for the crunch? Ridiculous - but hang on, that's what Peston is saying... er...

I would like to know why it was that when Robert Peston blogged on 29th July that men were to blame for the crunch, there was not a peep out of anyone. When Harriet Harman said something not very different, she was scoffed at and insulted. Answers on a postcard please!

Sunday, 2 August 2009

In praise of Peter Weir

Three of my favourite films are on the face of it utterly different, so it was a surprise when i realised that all were directed by the same man. In the first, Witness, an action thriller is metamorphosed into a meditation about simplicity and modernity, innocence and corruption, harmony and violence as a detective is forced by circumstances and his own decency to protect a young boy who was the sole witness to a murder and then has to go into hiding himself among the boy's Amish community that lives surrounded by the American way of life but apart from it. No pea-brained females with bee-stung lips in this film; instead we get a real woman, exquisitely played by Kelly McGillis. In fact everyone seems real. The police officer, played with grit, emotional intensity and depth by Harrison Ford, is trapped in the violent culture he comes from, and blows his own cover by challenging some young thugs who have picked on his Amish party on a trip to the local town. Ultimately in a gripping scene the policeman aided by the boy and the whole Amish community saves the boy and himself from assassins who come to look for them, but he and the woman he loves must part because he cannot cross the divide between the two worlds.
The second film is The Truman Show, which (imho) deserved the Oscar for Best Film but was perhaps meat too strong for the judges. The protagonist (played by Jim Carrey who makes credible a difficult and uncharacteristically serious role) is a young man unaware that he is the only real person in his entire small-town world which is in fact a 24-hour soap opera owned by a corporation and directed by a pitiless apparently all-powerful mastermind (played excellently by Ed Harris). In this world nothing is sincere and everything is fake except the hero. There are multi-layered audiences: the audience in the film, for whom the hero's entire life is TV entertainment, and the audience of the film, who are in on the secret before the hero himself, though its true awfulness is revealed only gradually, such as the moment when he has a domestic argument with his wife who blows her cover by speaking to her minders behind the hidden camera and then resigns from her contract, or the moment when his best friend asks whether he would lie to him - a line which is itself dictated through a hidden earpiece by the Ed Harris character. The film depicts the hero growing in maturity and understanding as cracks appear in the fake world, he gradually perceives the truth and eventually, with the help of a woman who loves him and manages to infiltrate the fake world to reach him (Natascha McElhone) makes his escape to the real world. What is this film about? Obviously it is a metaphor but one that defies definition. A mockery of soaps, of consumerism, of media manipulation, yes, but it also asks what is real, who and what can we trust? It is not really a comedy, either: almost every scene screams, "It's not funny!"
The third film is Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World in which we are in the Napoleonic Wars aboard an English warship. England and France are vying for mastery of the seas. The English vessel is seriously outgunned by a French privateer which is prowling the oceans, but the English commander (played by Russell Crowe) will not give up and admit defeat. Ultimately by a series of brilliant ruses the Englishman wins. However, that is only the bare bones of what the film is really about. It is really about the microcosm of life on an eighteenth-century ship, recreated in minute and often grisly detail, whether accurate in all respects I couldn't say, but utterly convincing. It is also about the Galapagos Islands and an opportunity to make great scientific discoveries missed because the English commander does not understand what they might signify, though his friend the ship's surgeon does. It is also about courage, ingenuity, friendship, music. Or is it about subverting all the norms of a Hollywood film? Remarkably there is not a single female speaking part in the whole film. Or is it about the love of the sea, and of film-making itself? The film is based on Patrick O'Briens Jack Aubrey novels, without being slavishly tied to any one of them. A jewel of a film.
So what do the three films have in common? A world within a world; central characters who are complex and intriguing and re forced to make choices and mistakes; masterly attention to detail; wonderful use of music; rejection of everything shallow and superficial; all these things and more.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

A dishonourable regime

According to many commentators including the BBC, Ahmadinejad's support is supposed to come from rural areas. But the CIA Factbook and other websites say that in 2008 around 68 per cent of the Iranian population lived in cities and the proportion is increasing at about 1.7 per cent a year. This is why I find the current regime's claim that Ahmadinejad won the election in June simply incredible. (The BBC, incidentally, has been very polite about the whole subject of the disputed election, but it does not stop a thinking observer from putting two and two together.}
Since the current regime is perpetuating such an enormous lie without shame, I suppose we should not be surprised that the trials going on today have been rushed to a hearing, doubtless in order to intimidate the population. Footage from inside the courtroom shows huge portraits of elderly ayatollahs hanging on the wall behind the judges as if to emphasise that there is no distinction between the political and judicial authorities.
The current regime is dishonourable and deserves no respect and I do not suppose it will get any from the people, no matter how many plainclothes thugs it lets loose on them.
By the way, I would like to know why the crowd let go the thug who killed Neda, and where he is now and why he is not on trial.