Wednesday 26 June 2024

The very odd case of Julian Assange

I am guessing that most readers of this blog tend towards a sympathy, perhaps a very strong attachment, towards freedom of expression and of the journalistic professions.  But what do we say about Assange?  Perpetrator of a fairly extreme case of leaks of an embarrassing nature (to put it mildly); and as a former soldier I'm sensitive to security issues.  But his subsequent hounding, and treatment in general, has been extraordinary: beyond all reason.  (For Hillary Clinton to ask if he couldn't be bumped off is pretty extreme, even given what an unpleasant person she evidently is.)  Likewise, his personal commitment to principles is pretty remarkable - he'd have made good martyr material in former ages.

All that said:  by Heaven, he's patently a really annoying person - just in terms of personality, I mean.  One can't help but think he has pissed off almost everyone he's ever met.  Obviously, people with a deeply stubborn streak - eigensinnig, to use the excellent German word - are often like that: and maybe we depend upon them for the expression of the unsayable, when anyone less stubborn (brave?) would have been shaken out of their position a lot sooner than he.

But really, ultimately: do they do their causes any good?  Solzhenitsyn has always seemed to me to be in that category.  Thanks to the interweb and the prevalence of webcasts etc, we can form these views much more readily now, where previously (as with my view on Mr S) we'd have been guessing.  To take a rather more mundane example, Kathleen Stock is a person I greatly admire - at the intellectual level: but watch her in a discussion on the www.  Frankly, I'll stick with her writings, thanks, and never wish to meet her.    

This line of thought is squarely ad hominem, by very definition.  But I do believe it's a strong factor in these cases.  Rightly or wrongly.


Thursday 20 June 2024

Tolstoy on clickbait and Princess Kate

Many years ago, when I was just a guest blog-curator on C@W, during CU's hols I ran a short series: Schopenhauer on blogging.  Yep, nothing changes: and I now find Tolstoy had some views on social media and clickbait too.

... it has now come to pass that as soon as any event, owing to casual circumstances, receives an especially prominent significance, the organs of the press immediately announce this significance.  As soon as the press has brought forward the significance of the event, the public devotes more and more attention to it.  The attention of the public prompts the press to examine the event with greater attention and in greater detail.  The interest of the public further increases, and the organs of the press, competing with one another, satisfy the public demand.  The public is still more interested; the press attributes yet more significance to the event.  [OK, we get the point - EdSo that the importance of the event, continually growing like a lump of snow, receives an appreciation utterly inappropriate to its real significance, and this appreciation, often exaggerated to insanity, .... etc etc (1906)

He always was a wordy bugger. 

It's clear enough: since the dawn of the printing press, reactionary forces have lamented whenever the layperson gets a new opportunity to self-publish their nasty little thoughts that depart from whatever wisdom the priesthood of the age seeks to guard.  I have a suspicion a well-read classical scholar could find something from Cicero or Aristotle along the same lines.   Reading?  We can't have the peasants doing that.  Bible in the vernacular?  No no no!

That's technology for you.  And the human spirit, etc.


Tuesday 18 June 2024

The Saudis and the 'Petrodollar Deal'

Several days ago, there were stories that a supposed US-Saudi deal had elapsed (at its 50th anniversary) with potentially earth-shattering consequences.  We said we'd take a look.

The 'deal' (as reported) was that the US would guarantee Saudi's security militarily in various ways, in return for the Kingdom only selling its oil in dollars, and reinvesting (most of?) those dollars in US government bonds.  This had the effect of propping up the dollar all these years, as nations globally were forced to buy dollars.  End the deal, end the dollar, was the implication.

Hmm.  Well, firstly I know nothing about macro-economics, so I'm always open to being corrected on some of these things.  (My state of macro ignorance has never held me back, since happily I've always found that micro competence is the way to make money.)

That said, here are a few thoughts.

  • several well-informed commentators stated there never was such a deal !
  • whether or not the doomsayers knew this (I thought everyone did, but maybe not), the US is about to sign a significant new defence pact with Saudi.**     We probably won't be given the full text ... but I can't imagine the US isn't getting more or less whatever it wants from this
  • given that the whole world (not least, China) holds US Treasuries, who wants to crash the dollar anyway?
  • the FX markets are just about the most liquid on the planet.  What difference does 'pricing in dollars' make?  (There's my macro ignorance showing - but seriously now, just tell us.  It isn't as if oil is priced in dollars at a fixed price, is it?)
  • after many years as a net oil importer (indeed, net energy), since the shale revolution the US has been a net exporter.  That makes the world a rather different place to what it was 50, 30, 20 years ago, in ways that I'm sure the US Treasury is on top of
From time to time we hear guff about how China wants the whole world to switch to renminbi, or alternatively some devious crypto-currency of their devising.  Nothing much seems to happen.  Similarly Russia says that, Uncle Sam being a busted flush, it will now export its oil and gas in rubles, thank you very much.  The rest of the world waves them a cheery two fingers.  

The simple fact is that liquidity is liquidity.  Loads of countries announce from time to time that they are going to supplant this or that feature of the established (western-led) global order, but it rarely does them any good.  For many years the Russians have sought to develop a global market in "Urals Blend" crude oil in order to break the tyranny of Brent (i.e. UK / North Sea) pricing, but Brent it remains on the world market.  After Brexit, the EU toyed with the idea of relegating English to "just the language spoken by Malta": and the French fancied their hour had come!  Tough titty, frogs: English it remains, long after the English themselves have departed.  Liquidity is liquidity.

I have a very strong suspicion nothing much has changed between the US and Saudi this year.  At any event, the US dollar remains my hedge against a UK meltdown.  It served me very well during the financial crisis 2007-10.

Any views from those with a proper PPE degree?  



** Incidentally, within the USA itself there is a significant school of criticism of this deal, not least in military circles: "we don't need their oil, so why do we need them any more?"  Not too difficult to come up with answers to that question, though.

Friday 14 June 2024

Election blues, election reds: new compo question

I have just read the election manifestos published so far[1], and mighty depressing reading they make.  Realistically, only the Labour document has the slightest bearing on anything: and given its complete divorce from reality, even that only exists to make fun of Starmer in later years when he fails to deliver on any but the most trivial items from it.  In large part it adopts the old Blairite formula of sentences without verbs, or purely descriptive sentences[2], so that no promise whatever is contained within.

Readers will not be surprised to learn I focus most closely on the Energy sections.  Labour's is remarkable for proclaiming 650,000 new "Green Prosperity" jobs across the country by 2030.  Oh, and these will be "good" jobs - presumably of a technical nature?   Y'know, building all that truly epic amount of new stuff on their shopping list, that will deliver a zero carbon electricity system by 2030?  Right, so where is the skill base that would enable 650,000 new technical staff to spring to attention when required?  Not home-grown, that's for sure.  More work visas all round!  Or, in the alternative (as lawyers say), if 650,000 skilled personnel are required, yet another among the dozens of reasons why it ain't gonna happen.

The other phenomenon, which almost deserves some kind of psychological analysis, is that all the manifestos cheerfully state that more renewable energy will bring down energy bills forever.  Why do politicians feel able to write this utterly nonsensical stuff down in black and white?  Why do notionally intelligent people seem to believe it?  

But enough: there's no point.  Moving to more light-hearted matters:  will anyone bother to vote?  Many traditionally ultra-loyal Tories are heartily pissed off by Sunak's D-Day faux pas.  Many people assume Labour will win so comfortably, they won't need anyone actually to get off their arses and go to the poll.  Da yoof is pretty pissed off all round, and they know voting Green gets you nowhere.  So ...

2024 predictions compo: Midsummer supplementary question - what will be the voter turnout at the GE?



[1]  Nothing yet from SNP or Reform.  But we know what they think.

[2]  E.g. from the 'Make Britain a Clean Energy Superpower' chapter:

Without action, flooding and coastal erosion will pose greater risks to lives, livelihoods and people’s wellbeing

OK - so then, errr ..?   But we wait in vain, because no concrete actions are promised.

Sunday 9 June 2024

'We are in 1938': excellent weekend read


'Defence', you understand
... if you don't mind your weekend peace being rudely shattered.

From the Graun, of all places.


Tuesday 4 June 2024

The curious tale of Iain Dale

Dale tale.   Pic: LBC
Declaration of interest: broadcaster, publisher, author, one-time legendary blogger and would-be MP Iain Dale once had dealings with this blog.   

Backgroundfor those who are not familiar with this chap, Dale first came to widespread attention as one of the trio of major-league early-adopter rightwing bloggers, along with Guido and Tim Montgomery.  With blogging first a real phenomenon in the mid years of the Blair/Brown regime, they (and their very many BTL commenters) had plenty of stuff to get their teeth into.  Blogs like C@W, and several more that are or were broadly on the right, grew up in their shadow.  Lefty blogs were nowhere.

All of these three titans, unsurprisingly perhaps, were approachable up to a point - but pretty sniffy (to the point of being prickly) about outright competition.  Big, big egos all round.  CU and I were on lunching terms with Guido but C@W ultimately disagreed with him about how things might move forward collaboratively (which we all thought was fair enough).  Montgomery is IMHO essentially a loner.  But to a degree, Dale initially included us within his plans for building a big tent of like-minded players.  He linked to us quite a bit[1], and when he branched into radio - for which, with his extensive current-affairs knowledge + huge network of carefully-cultivated contacts he seemed pretty well suited - he twice invited me on, as a guest voice, to the occasional shows he ran before he got a full-time slot .  But on the second occasion, he fed me a question to which I didn't give the answer he evidently expected and wanted.  He immediately threw the switch on my microphone, and signaled to a flunky to escort me gently from the studio[2].  

Dale's obsession - not even remotely hidden beneath his vain attempt at insouciance - was to be a Tory MP.  It was pretty obvious that his strategy was to become so well known via blogging and radio that he'd breeze through the selection committee in some safe seat.  Well, he certainly achieved the high profile: and he used his platform relentlessly for heavy-duty wheedling and lobbying in his own cause, even if he tried to do it all with a light touch.  Fair enough: that was his strategy[3].  But somehow, in seat after seat, it didn't quite work out: you are probably getting the picture.   The one time he found a berth (2005), it wasn't the longed-for safe seat and he was beaten by a LibDem.  Eventually, in utter despair, he accepted a full-time slot as a politics jock at LBC, a role to which, as noted above, he seemed really well suited.  He also moved very successfully into publishing and writing generally.

Fast-forward to 2024 anyhow, it turns out that, all these many years later, the obsession with being a Tory MP has never gone away.  He and his husband live in Tunbridge Wells and the seat came up for grabs.  He was shortlisted, and was thus within a whisker of his life's ambition!  All that media and publishing success, and maybe a safe seat too!  Happy ending or what?!  Characteristically, he publicly announced his revived political intentions and flamboyantly resigned from LBC.

And then ... it quickly came to grief.  A couple of years ago, he'd said of Tunbridge Wells in a podcast that he "couldn't stand the place"!   End of story - he's out on his ear.

Dale's is a very odd tale indeed.   Quite the micro-tragedy.  Some people just can't engage brain before opening mouth - however politically aware they are, and however much is at stake for them[4].  What an entertaining MP he would have made ...



[1] Ah, those were the days.  C@W used to be perma-linked by FT Alphaville, and frequently linked on Peston's BBC blog which, in those early days, was rivalled only by Michael Crick's as an MSM personality blog.   Then the Beeb blacklisted us (seriously!), and the FT dropped us too, as these MSM platforms - at first, just experimental - started to get jealous of their amateur rivals & unwilling to direct traffic elsewhere.

[2] No amount of protest on my part will convince many folks that I don't harbour a grudge against Dale accordingly.  Well, I don't: life is too short and Dale is too much a figure of fun.  The only grudge I bear is against Gordon Brown, and that's enough.

[3] On the other wing, Paul Mason is trying the same thing: he keeps reinventing himself in different parts of the country.  It's comedy gold.

[4] And not just opening the mouth.  There's a very funny film of him fighting a bloke at the seafront a few years ago.  Did I say 'figure of fun'?

Sunday 2 June 2024

General Popov (2): Corruption in Russia

Popular Popov

So: in a classic tale of Old Russia, the popular General Popov is being charged with extensive embezzlement - a misappropriated consignment of steel.   A good few years ago I spent a lot of time in Russia and had cause to observe, nay study (it was important) a great many Russian traits at first hand.  Anyone who thinks all humanity essentially behaves the same, and that attribution of national characteristics is rank stereotyping bordering on wickedness, is a fool.  

One of those traits was corruption at the day-to-day level.  You might even say I participated - although it was all perfectly legal from the PoV of US law, because I stuck to "expediting payments" [1] - for which one would get a receipt, since it was known that it needed to be claimed on expenses.  I came to the conclusion that Russian corruption was different in nature to, say, the Subcontinent variant.  In the latter, certain jobs are recognised to be opportunities for informal but systematic tax-farming, and are sought after, indeed competed for, accordingly.  "How much can you typically make on the side?" is a question a friend or family member will make of an acquaintance when discussing their work.  It is proactive, totally transactional, indeed quite businesslike and cheerful.

Russians are not quite like that.  First of all, we need to take a step back.  Russians are very convinced of their exceptional cultural superiority (and as regards basic education, literature and music, they are not wrong).  In that sense they are very nationalistic, but their primary loyalty is essentially to the local network / support system, their команда, of which they are an embedded member.  Everyone else is, more or less, fair game.  (You see how freely I generalise?)

The second aspect of their inner conviction - this one is a bit more difficult - is that their superiority means they shouldn't have to raise a finger to get their due; it should just sort-of naturally accrue to them.  At the national level this explains why, instead of being outward-looking and purposeful as other "exceptionalist" nations tend to be, Russia is reactive and basically just resentful.  (Why doesn't the world simply recognise their innate superiority, and award them their place in the sun / seat at top table?)

Here we get to the outright corruption.  When any jobsworth encounters, on his own patch, an outsider on a mission - a functionary from Moscow, a biznizman from abroad - he thinks: this chap has been sent to get something done.  He'll perhaps be in big trouble back in Moscow if it doesn't get it done (negative); he'll maybe get a big bonus if he pulls off his deal (positive).  But me?  I get nothing.  And that's not fair.  Resentment, never far from the surface, blossoms again: there's nothing cheerful or proactive in this thought-process.  So: he's going to have to cut me in: if there are any bonuses (positive or negative) associated with this, there needs to be something in it for me, too.  It's only fair.

As I discovered in a very different context - the Army - notions of fairness constitute the highest law amongst the soldiery.  They'll put up with almost anything, as long as by their lights it's been fairly dished out.  Schoolchildren are the same: the Life Lesson of "life's not fair" goes down very hard.  And so it is, by different lights, in Russia.  I'm the equal of you, indeed culturally I'm superior.  The apparent differences between us are mere happenstance.  It's not fair that there should be bonus coming your way and not mine.  So pay some of it across.

The amazing thing is, Russians would readily accuse themselves of all of this!  And they know how it looks to outsiders!  They are not remotely godless (though some are atheists) or amoral (by their own lights); and their loyalty within the команда knows no bounds.  They just wish life would be better.  Spontaneously.  And in the meantime, fairness dictates you cut them in.  And cheating the outsider is, well, that's what you do: the Man from Moscow or, in former times, the tribute-collecter from the Mongol horde.

Which brings us back to General Popov.  We've already said the truth about the embezzlement of the steel may never be known.  But every Russian thinks: yeah, but maybe ...  Because any top-down initiative comes from somebody high-up, far away, who badly wants it done - and it comes with resources, too, some of which can be creatively liberated and shared.

Now obviously there are also worldscale kleptocrats in Russia, and gangsters, and highly organised middlemen who know how to fence that steel.  These aren't the types I'm talking about.  It's the soldiers who understand how maybe some steel went missing; but anyhow, Gen Popov is a good bloke.  And you know what? - some diesel and tyres went missing in my barracks last week, too ...  As long as the rest of the команда gets a cut.

Finally on the good General:  one of the milbloggers wrote: 

Ah well, it seems there was no commissar to be there for him, like Furmanov was for Chapaev - to take him by the sleeve and stand in his way.  "Ivan Ivanovitch, don't do it!  It's wrong and it's not going to do any good.  Here's your glass, here's mine.  We'll knock them back in one, we'll sleep, and tomorrow we'll be back in battle."

This is the classic Russian way of making a potentially contentious point: you recount an incident from an impeccable source (a well-known poem, novel[2], or in this case, the film Chapaev, said to be Putin's favourite) that makes your point for you.  Even a really good bloke, an authentic hero, might sometimes be tempted off the straight and narrow.  With a bit of luck, there's someone in the team to head him off.  But hey, we're all human.



[1] "This is the traffic police.  Your new car has arrived at the Moscow city boundary.  Its paperwork seems to be in order.  Would you like to take delivery of it now, or in 6-7 weeks?  Now?  Ok, $50."

[2] Remember that fine Russian education.