Wednesday, January 30, 2008
Yesterday, the San Francisco company that runs the popular fantasy game pulled the plug on about a dozen pretend financial institutions that were funded with actual money from some of the 12 million registered users of Second Life. Linden Lab said the move was triggered by complaints that some of the virtual banks had reneged on promises to pay high returns on customer deposits.
Though as this Metafilter report (30 Jan 2008) makes clear things are really fairly hairy in the so-called real world.
According to the latest biweekly numbers released last Thursday by the Federal Reserve, for the two weeks that ended January 16th American banks had negative $1.3 billion in non-borrowed reserves. This is, historically, extremely unusual; just two months ago they had $30 billion (positive, of course) in non-borrowed reserves. The only reason some banks haven't been shut due to insufficient -- negative! -- reserve requirements is that the Federal Reserve is currently loaning them enough money through the brand new TAF (Term Auction Facility) program (also running in Canada and Europe) to make up their shortfalls. Today's TAF press release says that 52 American banks or institutions are currently receiving loans totaling ~$40
billion -- but the Fed refuses to name who they are.
Wonder if this secrecy is reassuring...
Wednesday, January 23, 2008
So is the current push for an unified food labelling system yet another example? Well possibly not, if we all take a deep breath and settle for achievable aims.
HMG wants one system of food labelling for nutrients instead of a multitude of competing commercial submissions.
Now, there are two ways of evolving standards in any field – ‘de facto’ and ‘de jure’. We are seeing the evolution of a de facto standard with videodiscs right now as one commercial solution becomes dominant. This is a pretty effective way if there are dominant economic players and if monopolisation can be contested. The other ways is for key players including governments to get together and publish a standard – as happened for colour TV in Europe and with the DIN standards for electronic components.
‘De facto’ can be brilliant, but it falls down as a process if the relevant competitors have the incentive and the market clout to segment the market by using competing standards. And the big food retailers do have such an incentive as it makes it harder to make comparisons between their offerings in their competing stores.
They often work very hard to make it difficult to make comparisons with other items in their own stores as it is.
Taking prices as an example:
Have you noticed that supermarkets often charge ten times as much for fresh chilli peppers in a package as for loose fresh chillies? That’s because the typical customer buys such small quantities that he doesn’t think to check whether they cost 4p or 40p. Randomly tripling the cost of a vegetable is a favourite trick: customers who notice the mark-up just buy a different vegetable that week; customers who don’t have self-targeted a whopping price rise.
Harford 2006 p 47
And beware of some of the bargain money-off offers especially on fresh foods. Often when the bargain ends a new price rather higher than the original is imposed, and the experience is that most people don’t notice.
Bottom line I think: supermarkets are likely to want their customers who are conscious of nutritional labelling to become familiar with their in-house systems, and feel less comfortable when dealing with their competitors systems. That helps ‘loyalty’ to stores. The chances of a de facto system evolving are slight. But an imposed central system is not necessarily going to be the best.
The question is therefore what do shoppers who care about nutritional information find most useful, and can we use central influence to evolve a standard to help future shoppers who may want to make choices based on this kind of information, forcing competitive retailers to respond to these choices?
So yes there is a place for a central initiative on this. But no sensible person is going to trust the current government on one of its central preaching sprees, so, unfortunately, we may be along way from getting such an useful aid to market choice.
Harford quote is from the chapter ‘What Supermarkets don’t Want You to Know’ in Harford, Tim ‘The Undercover Economist’ Little.Brown (2006)
“Megacorps down 3 following oil price jitters. BigBang soars by 6 after boardroom revamp”
In other words commentators claim to know exactly why thousands of shares have moved or stuck over a short timescale. The possibility that it may all be noise or random dances or due to sheer cussedness just isn’t acceptable. So ex post facto reasons have solemnly to be attached to price reports.
If the commentators really were able to give such precise analysis at such short notice they wouldn’t be out on TV or on the financial pages or even on the blogs. They would be in some back room making money. Except that in the backrooms the old story of economic pride blinding sane judgements hits us once again. So being out of sight is no guarantee of economic sanity either. Déjà vu anyone?
There are serious analysts out there but they tend to look at more fundamental things. The Bloombergistas are no more knowlegable that political ‘reporters’ who hyperventilate on opinion polls and bar-room gossip.
Only (begin to) trust analysts who admit that we are today like a ship in a huge storm, that nobody can micro-predict where wind and currents are pushing us, and that there are no easy solutions like interest rate cuts to bring us to port or even calmer waters. We have years of greed and stupidity (including uncritical market-worship) to undo and the reason it is happening now is that we reached a point of instability.
What we need is economic seamanship, and for me that includes scepticism of knee-jerk ‘market analysts’.
Tuesday, January 22, 2008
As an example of terms discussed, 'Skimble-Skamble' is such a good invocation of the Mayoral campaign of Boris Johnson that you dont really need to click to find its meaning. A joyful site to explore.
The term 'A Johnson' is not included however. For that you need to go to Terry Pratchet's book 'The Hogfather' where there is a reference to the famous Discworld inventor 'Bloody Stupid Johnson'. BS Johnson did not make things that did not work. He made things that worked in disastrously unexpected ways. Asked to design an ormanental fountain he comes up with an anti-missile system for example. Such an artefact is 'A Johnson'. If we all campaign hard enough in the London Mayoral scrap maybe the term will make a future upgrade of 'World Wide Words'...
Because when they go to report on ‘The Markets’ they mean the casino of share and currency prices, and the second guessing of ‘trends’, and parroting of predictions. Often about as relevant to real market economics as opinion polls are to real politics.
With the current uproar the whole concept of serious economics risks being ever so slightly discredited. And that would be a rather dangerous thing.
‘Bloomberg Television Economics’ is what John Kay calls the media circus presentation of ‘markets’. A kind of market version of the religious fervour of Marxism. In these dangerous times maybe we should follow his advice and concentrate on serious and interesting problems – flower markets and corner shops, car salesrooms and power generation utility control rooms. Real life, in fact.
As for the current uproar, John Kenneth Galbraith had the simple explenation - it is a few decades since the last lot of naive adventurers thought that they had the infallible formula for effortlessly generating money for themselves and their friends through their special knowledge of the secrets of money. 'Financial genius comes before the fall'. Once more we have to learn the lessons in real time, paid for by ordinary people.
See John Kay ‘The Truth About Markets’, Penguin 2004
Sunday, January 20, 2008
To get something different we need to understand systems dynamics.
An arresting image penned by Simon Caulkin, the management correspondent of The Observer. LibDems will find a lot of comfort and stimulation in his weekly pieces.
His New Years bracketing articles could be seen as a submission to our new Leadership team. ‘Tear up the (management) Textbook’ he says and gives examples that may give us pause. See his article today (Jan 20 2008) where he says (about the horrors of Labour style centralised command-and control management)
…. the most graphic description of the dark places such trends lead to came from a trade union official representing NHS Direct staff. He recounted how - against a background of rising call numbers - to cut costs NHS Direct first downsized and restructured its call centres to bring in more non-nursing staff, then launched a drive to standardise shift patterns and other working practices. The vehicle was a central, computerised scheduling system that 'manages' everything from shift patterns and annual leave to tea breaks.
This leaves local managers with little discretion - but it does allow countrywide performance comparisons against health department targets.
'So we have the worst of all worlds - disengaged workforce, fed-up line managers, and management by targets driven by computer software!'
If I'd set out to write a list of everything wrong with modern management, I couldn't have done better.
We have a Party Reform commission looking at how we LibDems could structure our organisation to face the modern world. I suggest that at the very least the members of the Commission ( remember all submissions must be in by February 8th) should look for some inspiration at the writings of Caulkin over the years, even if he is memorably rude about the profession (Management School Director) of our Commission chair. Basically most management theorists have the wrong end of the stick but some real world organisations offer exciting ideas for action
There are plenty more examples of organisations whose success has come from turning the orthodoxies upside down: always radically decentralising responsibility and leadership, and generating their own distinctive certainties…. . Much of their secret lies in their self-confidence as organisations, reflected in management frameworks that allow them to control their own destiny…
(Caulkin 30 Dec 2007)
What is our self-confidence and how do we build on it? Lets have some ideas for the commission… and Systems Dynamics may be one tool for doing this.
Look at the company New Labour decided to partner with to help "reform" it!
The British Government has also implemented the use of a non-medical Unum developed "bio-psycho-social" model to "evaluate" eligibility to claim critical, and in many cases last resort, incapacity benefits for chronically ill and disabled British citizens.
It looks like the next group to "get shoved" on the Unum "pathway" will be the mentally ill.
"Pathways to Work?" Perhaps we will have another Unum "initiative" called "Pathways to Heaven through Work" for our old age pensioners.
And that's not where this absurd Unum "influence" and extremely unhealthy British Government "affair" ends.
University education and national exclusive "rehabilitation" certification appears also part of the Unum "package"
Very sadly, it looks like some in Parliament have seriously lost their way.
No one in their right mind would trust in such a troubled outlaw branded insurance company, one which is about to face numerous RICO Act trials in America, to "help" reform such critical and fundamental health and social services.
[The BBC Investigation]
For the British people to be convinced to scrap the NHS through the incompetence of some, who have been seriously mislead and as a result appear to have wasted millions of pounds in taxpayers money trusting in a few ex DWP employees [now employed by Unum] and such a ruthless, unscrupulous, immoral organization, which appears to hold such a foreign and frightening "social agenda" for the United Kingdom - would be tragic.
It would be extremely profitable for the Unum Corporation to see the end of the NHS and instead, the implementation of a two tier American SICKO private "wealth-care" system. Have a look at how the American "wealth-care" system REALLY WORKS and then think very seriously again.
Support the Goals of StopUnum.com
Fascism will come wrapped in a flag and carrying a Bible. ~ Sinclair Lewis 1935
for an excellent account of how obsession with target setting in education has wrecked Britain's education system as viewed from the posituion of university teachers.
Can anyone be able to access stopunum.com. The site always says that will be back on line soon.is someone trying to prevent us to access it?
I want to expose UNUM criminal entity. They accused me of FRAUD while I was diagnosed with a painful neuro-muscular condition that has no cure. The bastards harassed me for several years even cutting off my benefits regardless of the reassessment process. I want to expose the denial of medical care made to the doctors at UNUM request. I got a few people that I want to expose as they even went to poison my dog.
More to come,
Sunday, January 13, 2008
The school was set up by parents in Hartland in order to keep an option for rural secondary education, rather than sending their children many miles away to a town based school. Parents now raise about a third of the cost of running the school and are expected to contribute their time to pass on personally skills and knowledge that they have.
In other words it is very precisely a school set up by parents to provide a richer educational provision than the Educational Authority could realistically manage.
The essential, the key to the success of this project, is that it came up from the roots and was not imposed from above. Precisely the point made by Ross Scott and Tony Greaves in the Lords Debate on Community Empowerment.
I suggest that as this party works through the implications of Nick Cleggs’s manifesto conference speech we look at some of these experiences.
Friday, January 11, 2008
Anyway, Hillary never forgot the people of the mountains, as can be witnessed by his promotion of the Himalayan Trust which has been involved in 'education, health services, reforestation, building airports, trails, bridges, water supplies and preservation of local cultural monuments'.
The newsletter report for 2007 is not yet out...
This really is making me feel old, I can just remember the 1953 uproar and the Coronation...
Tuesday, January 08, 2008
I came across this interesting note from a book published before his current candidacy. Observing him in 2003 –even before his election to the US Senate- the Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul said: (Saul 2005. p273)
Obama already had a calm, clear idea of how community worked and how it was the big picture that had to adjust. As he moved onto the national scene he continued carefully pointing out that“instead of having a set of policies that are equipping people for the globalisation of the economy we have policies that are accelerating the most destructive trends of the global economy.”
Obama, said Saul, was rephrasing Adam Smith:
“This disposition to admire and almost to worship the rich and powerful and to despise or at least to neglect persons of poor and mean disposition….. is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments"
This is discussed in the context of what Saul calls ‘Positive Nationalism’ which includes according to Saul:
The desire of people to organise their lives around the reality of where they live … a healthy democracy will be community generated… The Western model has for some time turned around managerial ideas of power, and these require centralisation… If we look at our own histories we discover that the changes that have made the biggest differences have most often been local..
If people who know each other well serve the welfare of their fellow citizens they may learn something unexpected about each other, perhaps how different they are. If people who do not know each other well perhaps because they come from different cultures, serve the welfare of their fellow citizens, they may well discover how similar their values are…
Saul may be reading his own agenda into Obama of course, but it is an interesting glimpse of one interpretation of this man and where he may have come from before the Presidential campaign masks went up.
John Ralston Saul “The Collapse of Globalism and the Re-Invention of the World” Atlantic Books, 2005 (in the chapter on Positive Nationalism.)
Adam Smith quote from ‘The Theory of Moral Sentiments’ p 61 in the 6th edition of 1790
Background: in the last Tory years people were encouraged to go onto ‘Incapacity Benefit’ because it took them off the crude unemployment figures. Then this looked a bit expensive, so they began muttering about thousands of ‘benefits scroungers’ and began targeting people they originally encouraged to go onto the benefit to force them onto normal employment benefit. This was through introducing Byzantine medical re-check procedures.
And now… in 2008…
The Tories have unveiled plans to cut 200,000 people from the Incapacity Benefit rolls. 2.65 million people on the incapacity register will be re-tested by doctors and if passed fit for work placed on ordinary J.A.
Dave Boy Genius has it seems just re-invented another Tory wheel. Be warned that this is an expensive wheel in its own right and very difficult to operate humanely.
Thursday, January 03, 2008
Apparently the problem is that ‘secular democracy’ intensifies Kenya’s sectarian divide in the same manner as it does (as they see it) in Pakistan.
(Democratic) systems, rather than diminishing the ugly consequences of sectarianism, have only intensified them by actually re-enforcing sectarian grievances. Nation building necessitates the development of a bond among the indigenous peoples of a state that unifies them such that all feel they share the fruits of progress…. Some would say that the inability to remove sectarian tensions and develop a progressive national consensus is a deeper flaw in the secular democratic system, which not only manifests itself in fledgling democracies but also in mature democracies as the growing momentum for devolution in Britain illustrates.
Islam, unlike secular democracy, condemns the causes of sectarian tensions by emphasising the bond of Islamic brotherhood between the Muslims and the bond of humanity between Muslim and non-Muslim - and the common relationship as citizens with both and the government.
And it goes on to praise the Caliphate for what it claims to be a historically uniquely harmonious multicultural society.
I suspect that some version of this argument is common, and non-Muslims need to respond to it. The comment on UK devolution, for example, suggest that there may be some interesting cross-currents in soem vews of internal UK politics.
Part of my response would be to ask interested historians with a Moslem background to analyse some periods of UK history - for example the time when Cromwell tried to operate a theologically grounded rule of 'the Saints' as the glue to hold together society. This may help to understand why British responses to the idea of a 'theocratic unity' are so deep seated.
Meanwhile it is interesting to see what lines H-ul-T are promoting. Hope we don’t get into terrorist tracking logs if we look at these pages ….
Wednesday, January 02, 2008
Check out an article in SLATE (The online magazine in the USA) on the ‘other’ US drugs legalisation movement. The process of avoision is giving US drugs consumers legal alternatives to most illegal drugs so they can get the effects without doing the time. Not magic mushrooms but magic market?
……. over the last two decades, the pharmaceutical industry has developed a full set of substitutes for just about every illegal narcotic we have. Avoiding the highly charged politics of "illegal" drugs, the pharmaceutical industry, doctors, and citizens have thus quietly created the means for Americans to get at substitutes for almost all the drugs banned in the 20th century. Through the magic of tolerated use, it's actually the other drug legalization movement, and it has been much more successful than the one you read about in the papers……. Over the last two decades, the FDA has become increasingly open to drugs designed for the treatment of depression, pain, and anxiety—drugs that are, by their nature, likely to mimic the banned Schedule I narcotics. (partly this is because of) the widespread public acceptance of the idea that the effects drug users have always been seeking in their illicit drugs—calmness, lack of pain, and bliss—are now "treatments" as opposed to recreation. We have reached a point at which it's commonly understood that when people snort cocaine because they're depressed or want to function better at work, that's drug trafficking; but taking antidepressants for similar purposes is practicing medicine.
This other drug legalization movement is an example of what theorists call legal avoision. As described by theorist Leon Katz, the idea is to reach "a forbidden outcome … as a by-product
of a permitted act."…. In the drug context, asking Congress to legalize cocaine or repeal the Controlled Substances Act of 1970 is a fool's errand. But it's far easier to invent a new drug, X, with similar effects to cocaine, and ask the FDA to approve it as a new antidepressant or anxiety treatment. That's avoision in practice.
In the context of the US health system, this avoision is basically available to wealthier people who can pay high prices for prescription drugs and who can cultivate the attention of a sympathetic prescribing doctor. So the wealthy escape the legal consequences of the draconian legislation underpinning the War on Drugs while poorer people self-medicate on illegal drugs or just get drunk.
What is the score-card on this avoision in our NHS-blessed shores? Should we concentrate on this route rather than the out-of-head-butting acts of straight legalisation politics?
Incidentally those curious about the claims made by chief constable Brunstrom on the impact of different drugs both legal and illegal might like to look at the US site EROWID which ‘documents the complex relationship between Humans and Psychoactives’. (I haven’t followed up the precise Brunstrom claims yet though – maybe a job for better qualified LibDem Scientists?). The pages on ‘spiritual uses’ may put some people off this source however.
The EROWID ‘experience vaults’ are a bit of a mind-blow in their own right. Check out for example this report on a bad trip from using Caffeine.
Particularly the detailed information about the economics of the opiate trade which really proves that there's no way you can stop it (eg you can now concentrate the active components of heroin such that you can fit enough to last an addict a month when reconstituted under a postage stamp).
Tuesday, January 01, 2008
Edge's publisher, John Brockman, asked the intellectual cream what they had changed their mind about and why. "Science is based on evidence. What happens when the data change? How have scientific findings or arguments changed your mind?" said the brief.
A common theme in the responses is that what distinguishes science from other forms of knowledge and from faith is that new ideas can rapidly overturn old ones as new evidence emerges. So there's nothing to be ashamed about in admitting an intellectual switch.
One contributor is Brian Eno, a name unexpectedly familiar in LibDem circles since Nick Clegg won the leadership poll.
He explains how he started his political journey as a Maoist, why he changed his views and where he is now:
Interesting…. a rather Popperian approach... wonder how this plays out with younger people?
Maoism, or my disappointment with it, also changed my feelings about how politics should be done. I went from revolutionary to evolutionary. I no longer wanted to see radical change dictated from the top — even if that top claimed to be the bottom, the 'voice of the people'. I lost faith in the idea that there were quick solutions, that everyone would simultaneously see the light and things would suddenly flip over into a wonderful new reality. I started to believe it was always going to be slow, messy, compromised, unglamorous, bureaucratic, endlessly negotiated — or else extremely dangerous, chaotic and capricious. In fact I've lost faith in the idea of ideological politics altogether: I want instead to see politics as the articulation and management of a changing society in a changing world, trying to do a half-decent job for as many people as possible, trying to set things up a little better for the future.
Perhaps this is why I've increasingly come to regard the determinedly non-ideological, ecumenical EU as the signal political experiment of our time…
In 1905 the incoming Liberal government inherited a number of conflicts from over ten years of highly ideological Tory Imperialist expansion policy. The most uncontrolled was in the new ‘East African Protectorate’ where about 1800 people died in various punitive actions, a process that Churchill said ‘looked like a butchery’. By 1908 this had been managed down to colonial stability.
Kenya had a chance to mark and transcend this centenary with a triumph for its own growth and rejection of colonial dependencies. Instead it has, sadly, fallen victim to the dangerous paradoxes of democratic power. The extraordinary notion that someone holding power should give it up to an opponent just because a bunch of people makes marks on bits of paper. The temptations to subvert this are huge when perceived stakes are high.
In th UK of 1905 onwards the abandonment of aggressive territorial grab policies by the incoming Liberal government and the parallel abandonment of a messianic ‘Imperial Mission’ caused huge anger amongst many Tories.
It is not generally realised how dangerous was the situation in Britain after 1905. So convinced were many Tories that the Empire was in danger from liberal meddling that a number of clandestine societies sprung up to organise drastic action if needs be, which in some cases looks a bit too much like plans for a fascist style coup. While public conflicts raged over the curtailing of the power of the House of Lords and the passage of Lloyd George’s budget, extreme Tory plans were laid for a takeover by an Imperial Council ‘loyal to flag and empire’, the ‘demolition of the Treasury’, and ‘putting the House of Commons in its proper place’ (that is subservient to a higher all-Empire political authority not necessarily of a democratic nature). Some of this treasonable activity came to light in the hothouse of the Home Rule for Ireland debate and the Ulster Volunteer threat of armed resistance backed by potential British Army mutinies.
If the results in the extremely close elections of 1910 had been seriously disputed all hell was a possible result in Britain. We should perhaps be a little more aware of our good luck and not be too surprised that other countries succumb to parallel pressures sometimes.
Of course the Liberal policies on Empire from 1905 onwards through the party’s period of office would not gain unanimous approval at a modern LibDem conference.
And yet we face some tough current questions. Do we have better answers? A current Liberal Democrat peer is on record as backing ‘resettlement camps’ in Botswana for ‘bushmen’ displaced from their traditional hunting grounds by the development of a nature reserve. According to BBC correspondent John Simpson she justified this in Hansard with references to stone age people not standing in the way of progress. The difference between this, and the justifications by our various predecessors in Imperial centuries for displacing ‘traditional unproductive cultures’, is hard to see.
Maybe the Liberal History group could help us explore this theme, which is of some relevance when discussing ‘globalisation’?
The treasonable Tory currents are explored in: Bernard Porter (2004, 4th Edition) “The Lions Share: a short history of British Imperialism.” Pearson Longman. pp 223-226.
The Botswana matter is explored in John Simpson (2007) ‘Not Quite World’s End: a Travellers Tales. Macmillan. Pp308-332. The peer he references on P322 is … well go see for yourself (not specifying until I can check out Hansard).
"Unfortunately, the government are being attacked, and investment hindered, by an NGO campaign from this country to discredit Botswana and its government. Survival International, a British NGO, has been waging war against the Government of Botswana over their treatment of the San people, the Basarwa, known commonly as the Bushmen of the Kalahari. When the Central Kalahari Game Reserve was established around 1961, there were a few thousand Bushmen still in that area. They were hunter-gatherers, with ancient tracking and water-detection skills, killing animals with primitive bows and arrows—on our visit we saw some of them in action. It is very romantic stuff and sounds absolutely wonderful—the stuff of boy scouts.
Great if you are a successful Bushman, maybe, but not so great for the Bushwomen and Bushchildren, who have a right to healthcare and education and who may not want to stay in the stone age with their families; they may want an opportunity for another life."
In a debate she instigated on 13th March 2006.
Quite patronising to be sure in her own special way, but it doesn't sound like what John Simpson was implying!
The Botswana government has carried out forced resettlement programms which include destroying wells in the desert to prevent people living there and herding people into resettlement camps where AIDS and alcoholism are destroying them.
Some in the west seem to like this vision of a 'noble savage' (not that its called that today).
On the other hand, the removal of people from the land they live from is wrong.
The liberal response should be to ensure property rights are respected, in Botswana probably along homesteading principles - that is those who are using the land can claim ownership. That would give the Bushmen some certainty and if they wished to live as they do now they could, or if they wished to develop or sell the land they could.