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August 12, 2011

davd cameron is a bad person

OK, these are the thoughts of Prime Minister of the UK, David Cameron, obviously irked at having to cut his holiday in Tuscany short, on the riots.  I'm only sharing them with you because they incense me.

First, from his initial statement, given in front of 10 Downing Street on Wednesday morning:

For me, the root cause of this mindless selfishness is the same thing I have spoken about for years.

It is a complete lack of responsibility in parts of our society, people allowed to feel the world owes them something, that their rights outweigh their responsibilities and their actions do not have consequences.

That's nauseating for sure, but mostly in its petulance.  Asserting "responsibility" as the quality that prevents people from rioting is just silly, especially in the sense that Cameron couches it, as ignorance of consequence, as responsibility and consequence are apples and oranges.  Responsibility is the motivation that is heedless of consequence but rather conforms to expectations, and actions that are refrained from because of potential consequence are not responsible acts but rather actions influenced by negative outcome.  Totally different things.

And a whiny thing to accuse rioters of, whether you think them mindless criminals or misguided social actors.

And here is Cameron from his question time yesterday in the House of Commons:

However, this was then used as an excuse by opportunist thugs in gangs, first in Tottenham itself, then across London and then in other cities.

It is completely wrong to say there is any justifiable causal link.

It is simply preposterous for anyone to suggest that people looting in Tottenham at the weekend, still less three days later Salford, were in any way doing so because of the death of Mark Duggan.

The young people stealing flat screen televisions and burning shops was not about politics or protest, it was about theft.

This is apparently a not-unpopular position within the UK, appealing to hard-liners as a muscular law and order stance, but it makes no sense on the face of it.  It's fuzzy logic, reductive for the sake pandering: while it's true that the looting had nothing to do with the death of Mark Duggan, to then leap to the conclusion that it was purely about "theft" is just insulting.  Yes it was about theft, and it was about a whole array of other motivations: powerlessness, frustration, mayhem, and the madness of the crowd, for a few.

What Cameron is not just an oversimplification of events but a total denial of contextualization, a refusal to accept causality (explicitly, in this case).

I know that the affairs of the UK are not necessarily of paramount interest on these shores, as different societies react to societal pressures differently.  But the conditions here, of income inequality, of an entire class of citizens without hope of anything but a life as an underemployed big box stocker, of an evaporating social safety net, are the same as the conditions in the UK that enabled the whole mess to happen.  And Cameron can throw an entire underclass into the hoosegow, but it's not going to distract the nation of the underlying problems for long.

And it's something we should address over here before the point in time when we're forced to organize our broom militias.

Posted by mrbrent at 12:11 PM

interesting usps factoids

One of the newses this morning is that the United States Post Office is threatening to lay a whole bunch of people off, and additionally wants to petition Congress for the right to break union agreements, namely so that they can invalidate the pensions of retirees.

We're a little bit dead to this kind of news, and the USPS is not exactly popular these days, as their system-wide service degrades.  Talk of the demise of the USPS is nothing new.  And a corporation trying to abrogate another worker's retirement?  That happens so often that I'm surprised the USPS story made the news at all.

But take a second and think about it: USPS mail service may seem anachronistic, like a rotary phone, but what it does do is kind of astonishing.  It guarantees delivery to every address in the US, six days a week.  Guarantees.  That, "Neither rain nor snow nor..." bit?  That's no joke.  And this is done completely without a profit motive.  Sure, folks are getting paid (and the folks that are getting paid are unionized), but there is no dude at the top of the org chart whose salary is measured in hundreds of millions and not thousands.  The USPS is a lean organization, as its bottom line and its revenue are intended to equal each other.

And here's two facts of which I was not aware, from a bit of reader's mail to TPM:

Firstly, the USPS is subject to a regulation forcing them to pre-pay retiree health benefits for 75 years in the future. This means that they are paying for health benefits for postal carriers who haven't yet been born. The cost of this regulation (a regulation not required of any other government or private entity) was about 5.5 billion dollars in FY 2011 and was even higher in previous years.

Secondly, the Postal Service has overfunded their pension system by about $75 billion dollars in recent years. Thus, there is money in a separate account that could more than handle the current shortfall in postal revenue ($0 of which comes from tax dollars).

That is an interesting thing!  I would hope that the USPS would have the good sense to seek a solution to diminished demand that did not involve laying off 120,000 people, given the current state of the economy.  And for once I'd like to see an employer not use every conceivable event as an excuse to break agreements with unions.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:57 AM

August 11, 2011

wherein i misremember monty python

So I am very hot under the collar to write many impolite words concerning the words of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, David Cameron, but as I have a stack of things I need to get done, I was going to use my social media superpowers and post (as a slander on Cameron) that Monty Python clip with the cop arresting someone, and the arrested says, "It's a fair cop, guv, but society's to blame," to which the cop replies, "Right, then, we'll bring them in too."

But after searching around, it turns out that I have, for more than twenty years, misremembered that bit of Python.  Turns out, the bit (from "Church Police"/Episode Twenty-Nine) goes like this:

Church Policeman:  Disgusting! Right! The hunt is on. (kneels) Oh Lord we beseech thee tell us who croaked Leicester.

(Organ music. A huge hand descends and points at the man.)

Man:  All right, it's a fair cop, but society is to blame.

Church Policeman:  Agreed.

Agreed?  That's it? Agreed?

Sadly (happily?), the version that lives in my memory is funnier, and a more apt comparison to David Cameron, who got all law'n'ordery just because he should be in fucking TUSCANY right now and not in the fucking House of Commons.

More on that later.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:06 AM

August 10, 2011

laurie penny: riots

I meant to post this yesterday, but one day out does not make that much difference.  This is London reporter Laurie Penny on the riot situation in the United Kingdom which has yet to be given a snazzy name.  Penny manages to walk the fine line of talking about root causes of the riots without pardoning the actual rioters, which is important after a full day of refusing to address anything like sociological cause until the criminality stops.
Most of the people who will be writing, speaking and pontificating about the disorder this weekend have absolutely no idea what it is like to grow up in a community where there are no jobs, no space to live or move, and the police are on the streets stopping-and-searching you as you come home from school. The people who do will be waking up this week in the sure and certain knowledge that after decades of being ignored and marginalised and harassed by the police, after months of seeing any conceivable hope of a better future confiscated, they are finally on the news. In one NBC report, a young man in Tottenham was asked if rioting really achieved anything:

"Yes," said the young man. "You wouldn't be talking to me now if we didn't riot, would you?"

"Two months ago we marched to Scotland Yard, more than 2,000 of us, all blacks, and it was peaceful and calm and you know what? Not a word in the press. Last night a bit of rioting and looting and look around you."

Eavesdropping from among the onlookers, I looked around. A dozen TV crews and newspaper reporters interviewing the young men everywhere.

I'm pretty confident that we can get all law-enforcement on the looters and talk about why the looters are looting at the same time, much as we can all still walk and chew gum (but have trouble walking and texting).

(And in the time since intending to link Penny and actually linking Penny, I see that she got picked up by Jezebel, so good on her.)

Posted by mrbrent at 9:58 AM

August 9, 2011

london riots

This is a note from my friend Kev, the one I talk about all the time who is indisputably smart and living in London and old enough to remember the Broadwater Farm riot (et al.) of 85:

14yr old boys are setting fire to property at will across the capital.

I'm about to go to bed, and I suspect that I will wake up to a different England in the morning. I do believe this is a watershed moment in our history, and the question that we've asking for years about what to do with our feral youth may about to get a brutal answer.


Oh sure there's all kinds of social ills born of the governmental neglect that the Tories campaigned on, but this is above and beyond.  That may be a proximate cause, but this is not a case of the proletariat finally arising, deciding to take no more.  This is a small quantity of motivated stateless actors, connected by technology, just fucking shit up for the kick of it.

I'm not sure where that falls in my cosmology, because while acknowledging that that's an aspect of the world we live in, I never thought it could be so effective.

Posted by mrbrent at 9:18 AM

August 8, 2011

standard & poors

If you at all care you may have noticed that the party to absorb the most damage from the credit rating downgrade of the United States by Standard & Poors is Standard & Poors itself.  Who, you might recall, has no small amount of complicity in the real estate collapse of three years ago, rating bundled, unpapered, fraudulent home mortgages as AAA, the very same rating denied the US because a certain political tactic of holding a loaded gun to its own head.  No, there's not a lot of love out there for S&P, whether from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Warren Buffet, or this economics blogger who is quite candid in his or her experience with S&P:
Look, I know these S&P guys. Not these particular guys — I don’t know John Chambers or David Beers personally. But I know the rating agencies intimately. Back when I was an in-house lawyer for an investment bank, I had extensive interactions with all three rating agencies. We needed to get a lot of deals rated, and I was almost always involved in that process in the deals I worked on. To say that S&P analysts aren’t the sharpest tools in the drawer is a massive understatement.

Naturally, before meeting with a rating agency, we would plan out our arguments — you want to make sure you’re making your strongest arguments, that everyone is on the same page about the deal’s positive attributes, etc. With S&P, it got to the point where we were constantly saying, “that’s a good point, but is S&P smart enough to understand that argument?” I kid you not, that was a hard-constraint in our game-plan. With Moody’s and Fitch, we at least were able to assume that the analysts on our deals would have a minimum level of financial competence.

Dude, what do you really think?

Not to say that the rating shouldn't be downgraded — well, it shouldn't, given that an asteroid could hit the earth and the US would still honor its debts — and I'm always happy to see someone wag a finger at the Tea Party, but according to my limited understanding of business, one reason that should never be given for granting a rating is to make a point.  It was an interesting decision by S&P in light of the total vacuum of good will S&P exists in.

Posted by mrbrent at 3:13 PM

is it september yet?

It is officially the dog days of summer, at least by my reckoning, as it is downright icky outside without being an actual heat wave.

Not to complain about the weather; no, there's so much else going on out there.  The markets down three percent, Standard & Poor has entered the business of granting free civics lessons with each rating, London is all a-riot, etc.

Dog days: a fascinating phrase, coined in the Seventeenth Century, after one tragic mid-August in which a pack of feral Weimaraners (you know, the gray dogs with the people eyes?) terrorized the Loire Valley, with entire villages' worth of people disappearing (eaten?) overnight, as Europe's attention was focused on the Thirty Years' War.  Interesting, yes?

Also, the dogs in the expression "mad dogs and Englishmen"?  They are actually just angry, not rabid.  The Englishmen, I'm not quite sure.

Posted by mrbrent at 10:45 AM