Cui bono?

honor hominesque honesti floreant

Category: autistic fish

We keep telling you

MMQQ Supplement 2

Next regular posting scheduled 16 May

Once again there’s been an e-mail saying this journal doesn’t keep up with current events.  This is outrageous.  Even if you only look at the ones we are allowed to publish, I’d back some of our stuff to stand elbow to elbow with what comes out of Chatham House or RUSI.  (But it’s still a pity my attempt to sign the Official Secrets Act with disappearing ink was thwarted.)  In our honourable tradition, so often flouted now by politicians across the western world, of giving tangible evidence for claims placed before the public, try this.  It was first posted in 2010.

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It is still hard to find an economist who sees globalisation as a bad thing, even if it would be unnecessarily cynical to point out that economics tends to be written by members of a class that does well out of it.  But there are two hugely important factors involved in economic activity.  Putting it crudely, one of them is money and the other is the people who do the work.  It seems to be pretty well taken for granted that free circulation of money is a good thing, and an essential element of the business, which will lead to increasing prosperity of the world’s population, (or at least of the populations of rich countries, or more exactly yet, of the better-off sections of the populations of rich countries).  This is considered to be the same thing as progress.  Yet in country after country, the idea that the same kind of freedom should apply to people is seen as unacceptable.  It is not at all clear that the unacceptability is soundly based on economic self-interest.  In America many employers would be eager to recruit more staff and get more business done.  One might have thought that the population at large would be glad to see more workers arrive to do the necessary menial jobs – garbage collection, low-grade building work, and so on – which they do not want to do themselves at any price.  Yet a giant wall is being built on the southern frontier, and draconian laws are being prepared to capture and punish those who have somehow managed to gain entry without official permission.  Hundreds drown each year in the Mediterranean because they cannot lawfully enter the European Union.  The EU itself is established on a premiss of ‘free movement’ of all citizens within its boundaries, but –  linguisticism darkens the debate – even for those whose starting point is within the EU this is only free movement of those who can establish themselves in recognised employment or show other evidence of having enough (unspecified) resources.  In every continent the ‘trafficking’ of people is an appalling disgrace, and is even sometimes mentioned by governments and ‘authorities’  as a problem.

            Thus, when neither proclaimed political principles, nor economic self-interest – and obviously not common humanity – can explain why people are denied the freedom granted to money, the conclusion…. is what?

(Answer (2018): democracy is eating civilisation away; it is a system allowing the most privileged and influential to gerrymander things to their own further advantage)

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Or try this, equally topical as things are at present, and in fact not an editorial contribution of our own, but an example of the better kind of correspondence we receive from time to time.

3 July 2017

Some have unkindly, and inaccurately, described Theresa May as Hillary Clinton translated into British.  Theresa got where she did by her own efforts, not significantly aided by serried banks of supporters, and she did get to the top job.  But she is a paradigm example of the outstanding lieutenant who should not have been promoted  captain.  Given a post (Minister of the Interior) where cunning politicians like to see an able and efficient rival, since there is a good chance its demands may leave them exhausted, she held it for six years but still succeeded to the top job.  She also was not afraid to speak truth to the dangerous, that is the police and the elderly grandees of her own party.  But Theresa’s efficiency is her weakness.  She identifies issues and their parameters, the problems and their solutions, and systematically works out the ways to deal with them.  Efficiency, in this mode, is what in junior posts is described as ticking boxes.  To tick a box appropriately you have to identify it, and that identification tends to fill up the foreground of the attention, blocking the chance of taking into account other circumstances that might be related, might be important. and might change.  This kind of efficiency is the enemy of the imagination of the gifted and successful leader.  In the case of the holder of a demanding post it also inevitably leads to a risky dependence on outlines and options and information and position papers passed upwards from offices which individually will very probably have less competence and less complete awareness of what is needed.  The procedures for supplying that material will soon enough become standard and by that fact will be invested with a spurious aura of reliability and authority, even when the material is the outcome of an overworked inexperienced subordinate team.  And what will the result be when the time comes to take the sum of this prodigious labour and to ask others from an opposing camp to accept the carefully measured and firmly based conclusions of one’s own side?  Will one meet them with a mind ready to hear different views and values and to recognise aspects of the situation that had not shown themselves before, a mind able at once to see a way to build a stronger structure by combining the familiar with the new?  Or will that strenuous preparation of meticulous plans to cover every factor foreseen have led to unquestioning trust in one’s own side’s right to stay true to its decisions, adherence to its predetermined principles and to insistence that one’s own position is the only one possible, lead in fact to the last step on the path to failure?   (The Hon. J. Q. de H., Suva.)

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And although this is yet another re-posting, it certainly should be included since it too remains  disgracefully topical. (from 15-5-16)

Readers over the age of 7¾ will long have realised, I trust, that various kinds of arguments are put to us from time to time to persuade us to publish some item or other.  I feel free though to express my amazement at the flexibility of the backbones in some news organisations that we have dealings with, unless, that is, their bleatings of approval for government actions simply show their callow credulity.  For instance, a few days ago the British media were full of ‘good news’ brought to them by express donkey from No.10 rejoicing that the noble British government had done a ‘U-turn’ on its scandalous, and thoroughly dishonourable rejection of a parliamentary proposal to admit refugee children, many with good and valid links to Britain, who were living without family or any other adult support in Europe, and in some cases without adequate food or shelter, but who had been denied entry.  (On what grounds can any moral being refuse help to a child in such circumstances?  On what grounds?  On grounds of invincible – and also, looking at the broad economic picture, entirely pointless – selfishness.  Pure and unadulterated selfishness, therefore.)  So in what did the trumpery ‘U-turn’ actually consist?  The government had merely withdrawn the declaration of its refusal, and announced that it was ‘in talks’ with ‘various organisations’ ‘to see what arrangements could be made’.  What is the level of political IQ that can think that it sees there a good deed?  There are frequently other such devious plays on the gullibility of lackadaisical media outlets in today’s benighted journalistic circus, relying on governments to deliver prepacked ‘news’ and social networks to deliver unhinged views which can be ladled out, without benefit of sub-editing, to anyone who might still be listening (and is this a recipe for commercial survival?)

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Since this supplement is being prepared anyway, I will, with his permission, add unedited comments sent in by our long-time colleague Berthold Featherstonehaugh-Cheems, now a para-academic in London:

Goodness knows what Lady Margaret Hall was teaching back in the 1970s.  Whatever it was it doesn’t seem to have done Theresa much good.  The woman seems incapable of normal intelligent thought.  She has swallowed whole this notion of her being a second Thatcher, an ambition which itself shows deplorable lack of insight.  Thatcher only got away with it, because the men in Thatcher’s cabinet were so confused by the idea of being ordered around by a woman that they let her get away with things that would have been career-ending for any of them.  And once she had cottoned on to an idea or policy she was incapable of adapting to the idea that it might be a mistake. Some inspired spin-doctor called this ‘steadfast leadership’.  Little-known fact (as passed on by a former academic at Somerville):  Thatcher left after being told her mind might be better suited to politics than academia.  May follows this model with even less adaptability.  Once she’s learned what she’s supposed to say about some idea or policy she’ll carry on repeating it robotically even if every fact in the situation changes through 180 degrees.  She really should face up to the fact the  ‘British people’ did not vote for Brexit.  About one third of the adult electorate, only, voted for it.  As for her approach to negotiation, she seems to have only one tactic, great quantities of ill-defined but agreeable-sounding verbiage, making complimentary but entirely irrelevant comments about the other side, spinning things out until deadlines get near, so that through boredom or exhaustion the opposition will stop making objections; then adding in a casual throwaway style at the end “in all relevant sectors”, “to cover all likely developments”, “so far as is possible” and “which is in accord with the agreements we’ve already reached” (whether this has the slightest link to truth or not), or – if she gets caught out – “Oh, I know I signed that last December, but I thought that was just a goodwill gesture to get things moving along nicely.  But it’s too late now, isn’t it – we’ll have to let it go through, it would be so much trouble if we had to start all over again.”

            There are two things wrong with this sort of approach.  In the short term it may, sometimes, cut the mustard, but long-term your opponents will get tougher and tougher, and you’ll pay the price many times over.  The other thing is that it relies heavily on the belief that the opposition’s mental equipment is significantly inferior to your own.  I do not think this is a wise strategy for the present British government.

Supplement a

1) Editor’s note; 2) political geometry; 3) climate change; 4) science news; 5) antique principle

From the Editor.   There were privately circulated pre-launch editions of Cold Salad, and it has been suggested that those could now be posted for the wider audience.  This would smack of ‘filler’ journalism as currently popular in the alternative universe of the ‘media’ (in fact often the main component even in news broadcasts, on channels stoically cutting costs like the BBC).  However three items in particular have been cited, so we shall use them and thus get a little more spare time to practise scrimshaw on the bones of shipwrecked sailors that lie scattered all round the coasts of this island. (Tourists queue up to buy the stuff, though to tell the truth we usually just buy bones from a local butcher.) With apologies to the privileged few who have seen them before we add one of those items at the end here, with the others proposing to re-appear later.

  Before pressing the starter button, though, it occurs to me that cost-cutting in the media very often seems to succeed in sparing that vital administrative layer at the upper end.  ‘We are all in this together’ would of course be a disastrous principle to follow when trying to make a business – or a country – more efficient, and it is a relief to see it discarded not merely in the media but right across the whole range of activities in all modern developed economies.  I’ve been ruminating on a possible ‘Cold Salad Law of disemployment’: other things equal, the chances of losing one’s job are inversely proportional to d, one’s distance from the base of the hierarchy, while d is directly proportional, other things equal, to the chances of doing the actual work.  Might be worth running that past my audience at my speech to the Women’s Institute next week.

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Political geometry

  One of the humbugs that the collective British psyche likes to suck on from time to time is the idea that Britain has the world’s oldest parliamentary democracy.  There are reasons why this sweetmeat should not be swallowed whole; for one, it is not true – both the Isle of Man and Iceland have older independent parliaments (insofar as any political entity other than a state at the top of the current international foodchain can be said to be independent.)  Another problem is the strange aftertaste, namely a belief that Britain’s arrangement, with ‘our side’ against ‘the opposition’, is the world’s best system of government.  Now the capacity to believe one thing while standing in front of its diametrical opposite is one of the more bizarre human traits that nature may not have foreseen when she allowed the first crossopterygian to flop out of the steaming oceans onto the Devonian mudflats.  Nonetheless it is there now, along with more predictable qualities such as altruism, hatred, dishonesty, and greed.  (Surely a little more effort could have anticipated bankers, and devised some predator to take care of that problem.)  If you want evidence of the capacity, remember that tribe in the Amazon who are reported to believe in all seriousness that they are (perhaps in some clintonian sense) a species of red parrot. Nevertheless the conflict between belief and reality in this matter of British parliamentary excellence is so acute that even the most governable citizen may spot the problem if somehow able to view it at a distance great enough.

  In fact the British parliament, is like the twin heads of a monster.  Below the neck the two competing sides are so similar that grosso modo they might be treated as one, and often are.  But no matter what ideas are forced by whatever means into one head, in nearly every case some obscure hydraulic fault in the political physiology results merely in the exhalation of vapours of an exactly countervailing composition from the other head.  If anything is ever done with the ideas, it is done elsewhere at another time, and in the main by other actors. That is, the noise in parliament may be an echo of the roaring and grating sounds as the country rumbles along, but the motive forces operate elsewhere.

  The odd thing is that the pundits who agree that a two-sided parliament, both reflecting and encouraging conflict, is not constructive often assume it is one of only three possible arrangements.  One of the two others is to abolish the adversarial system by getting rid of the adversary, in other words install an autocracy in which case the way that a parliament – if any – is conducted becomes immaterial.  But the trouble with this approach to making the trains run on time is that they tend to run over human and social rights strapped to the rails not far up the line.  The other popular solution is to replace the two-sided asylum by a more or less semicircular chamber as in France with seating arranged according to where members see themselves in the political spectrum.  The idea here is that members will appreciate that political differences do not necessarily mean barking hostility and a stark contrast between right and wrong, because they sit next to others who hold basically similar views but disagree on details.  And there is no visible yawning pit at any point beyond which the inhabitants are clearly too alien to wear white hats and must therefore be enemy forces, and if they are too far away round the circumference verbal and physical combat becomes impracticable anyway.

  The semicircular chamber is certainly heading in the right direction.  What is wrong with it is the seating fixed according to political beliefs, and it is really quite easy to overcome this.  One rather attractive idea would be to group members by the geographical area which they represent, irrespective of party allegiance.  Or we could simply place them in an alphabetical order.  Or we could arrange them in the same way as platoons in the army, tallest on the right, shortest on the left.  This might lead to grumbles from the tallest men since in the nature of things they would tend to get less opportunity to socialise with the opposite sex, but then tall men have built-in advantages in this respect anyway.  But the idea which we like best is the one which follows what you do with children at some birthday parties, where a number is pinned on each guest as they come in, and that gives them their seat when the bunfighting begins.  This way the members of a parliament would get a different seat each day.  Sooner or later they would be almost bound to meet most of the other members close up, and could hardly avoid coming to see their neighbour for the day as a human being.  They would then be so taken up with observing his or her personal habits – cleaning ears with a pencil, nose-picking, carrying a briefcase full of garlic sausage sandwiches, breaking wind and so on – that there would be little time to explore the neighbour’s identity as a personification of one of the more repellent forms of political wickedness.  A disadvantage of this system is that it might lend itself to manipulation; the more cunning among the politicians might lurk around the entrance so that they either accompany or avoid some particular fellow member.  This, however, could be overcome by linking entrance numbers to seat numbers on a random basis, easy enough with a small computer and appropriate software.

  But if we are really looking for ways to improve the parliamentary system, perhaps it is superficial merely to allocate seats in the chamber by lottery.  An idea which must naturally occur to us, and we dare say many would agree, is `Wouldn’t it be better to go the whole hog and choose the members by lottery in the first place?’

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Climate change.  The question is ‘What effective action can be taken against global warming?’  The answer is ‘None’.  There will be no effective action against climate change, because the great majority of those who would have to take it are politicians in countries with elections.  Their primary goal is winning at the next election, at most four or five years away.  (If they were to propose sensible measures their opponents would get in by promising the opposite.)  Action against climate change would not produce useful results within a period of at the very least fifteen years.  Precisely analogous considerations apply to autocratic rulers except those blindly confident of staying in power, who are consequently likely soon to lose it, and be replaced by some ruler of the other varieties.

Quod est desperandum.

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Science news

The lengths to which some governments will go in order to get rid of their research budget are marvellous to behold.  Recently scientists in Idaho announced that they had discovered that Prozac leads fish to develop symptoms of autism.  It is true that there is not much else to do in Idaho except grow and eat potatoes.  Nevertheless we are impressed.  What next?  Dosing chickens with diphenhydramine to see if it induces dyslexia?  Mandelic acid in the feed for goats as a factor in attention-deficit disorder?

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Principles of the past

Simple Simon [our unpaid office intern reading from a scrap of paper on the notice board]:

      The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government

Who said that?  Some sort of wishy-washy softy leftist, I suppose.

The Deputy Editor [irritated]: Not in the least.  Absolutely not.

Simon  Well, OK.  But not in a position where he could actually face that sort of situation.

Dep. Ed.  On the contrary,  in a position of the highest responsibility for lives and deaths.

Simon  But obviously not in a crisis when he might really have to act on his principle.

Dep. Ed.  That was Churchill, British prime minister, November 1943