Archive for the ‘Politics’ Category

Easter viewing

March 25, 2016

I have meant for some time to recommend Joshua Oppenheimer’s two documentaries about the deaths of more than 1 million people in Indonesia in 1965-6, at the time when Suharto came to power. It wasn’t a genocide, I think, because lots of different racial groups were targeted (though ethnic Chinese suffered greatly). Rather, it was a ‘politicide’, if such a word exists, an attack on all those deemed to be enemies of the new regime, including anyone deemed to be a communist.

If you have not seen these films, you should. They can be rented cheaply from Amazon. Here is the download from Amazon.co.uk for the first documentary (£3.49 to rent), The Act of Killing, and here is the download from Amazon.co.uk for the second documentary, The Look of Silence.

The Act of Killing received rave reviews partly because of Oppenheimer’s extraordinary methodology. He showed up in Sumatra saying he was interested in learning about the 1965-6 killings, and a bunch of semi-retired preman (gang members/thugs) said: ‘Hey, that’s us. How can we help?’ He then convinced them to act out their memories of murder for his movie. This makes for some very weird and utterly compelling footage.

 

Personally, however, I like The Look of Silence more. In this second documentary, Oppenheimer follows one of the victim families, as a surviving brother gently begins to confront the murderers who butchered his sibling and chucked his body in the local river. The Look of Silence gets much closer to the political and social story underlying the politicide. It is not so visually freakish, but it makes you think more. I note that on Amazon, individual viewers rank it higher than The Act of Killing, so other people may have had the same reaction as me. Really, tho, you need to watch both docs.

 

Finally, here are Werner Herzog and Errol Morris talking about The Act of Killing, just in case the trailer hasn’t convinced you to watch it:

 

 

 

The Thin Controller

March 21, 2016

Osborne weight loss

George Osborne, who I used to call The Fat Controller, has become the Thin Controller after eating less and running more. But he is still Sir Topham Hat, insensitive nemesis of poor Thomas the Tank Engine (and all other members of the working classes).

In case you missed the Thin Controller’s latest, last week he decided to reduce taxes for the rich and the middle classes at the same time as chopping a further £4.4 billion over five years from the budget to support disabled people. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that 370,000 people with a disability would lose an average of £3,500 a year. This comes on the back of an already-implemented big squeeze on various direct and indirect forms of welfare support for the disabled.

Most of the groundswell of anger at the Thin Controller — he has already abandoned the disability benefit cut in a standard ‘oh my god, what have I done this time?’ volte-face  — focused on his increase to the level at which higher earners begin to pay the 40 percent income tax rate. However this change has at least the merit of rewarding middle class work.

What gob-smacked me in the Thin Controller’s budget was the decision to make big cuts to already ridiculously low rates (compared to income tax rates on work) of Capital Gains Tax (CGT). Britain is fast becoming a rentier society, but the Thin Controller’s determination to turn us into some proto-feudal squirearchy seems to know no bounds. He cut the lower band of CGT from 18 percent to 10 percent, and the higher rate from 28 percent to 20 percent.

The old rates do remain in force for profits on one’s second, third, fourth and fifth, etc homes (i.e. for non-primary real estate). However the adjustment is a huge bung to the share- and bond-owning leisure class, of which I regard myself as an aspiring member. Thinking today about whether I should not perhaps take the next three months off and go on safari, I decided to check the HM Revenue and Customs web site and learn more about the Thin Controller’s commendable policy to encourage my indolence. Here is what I found:

<Policy objective>

<The government wants to create a strong enterprise and investment culture. Cutting the rates of CGT for most assets is intended to support companies to access the capital they need to expand and create jobs. Retaining the 28% and 18% rates for residential property is intended to provide an incentive for individuals to invest in companies over property.>

This statement has three great qualities. First, it is pure gibberish. Companies (the supposed subject of the second sentence) do not pay CGT, they pay Corporation Tax. Second, it is dishonest. Following from 1., what the Thin Controller really means is that he wants to support the stock-owning rentier class, who don’t need to work because tax rates on passive capital invested in shares and bonds were already low, and are now even lower. Annoyingly, he can’t actually say this, but we know who we are. Third, the statement is misguided. This is because no British rentier with half a brain is going to invest much of their unearned capital in British companies when the Thin Controller has created such an anaemic growth environment. One gives one’s capital to American companies like Apple, Amazon, Skyworks, Gilead, Amtrust Financial Services, American Express, American Tower, Verisk Analytics, and so on. (Disclaimer: oh yes, I own them all.) And then one pays sod all tax to the Thin Controller on the profits. Of course, in the final analysis this doesn’t matter because the Thin Controller doesn’t need the tax because he’s dismantling the welfare state.

Got it?

 

Farage’s forage

December 12, 2014

Having watched the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage deliver his brand of anti-immigration populism on the BBC’s Question Time last night, I keep coming back to these remarkable maps, below.

Voter support for UKIP appears to be almost perfectly correlated with parts of England that contain the lowest proportions of immigrants.

All those shops in UKIP areas of the country that sell flags of St. George should also sell life-size cardboard foreigners so that people have someone to hurl abuse at.

In fact, that is a very good idea for my next business…

 

UKIP support vs net immigration

Geez mate…

December 8, 2014

Start the week with Australian Trade Minister Andrew Robb losing his cool when pressed about why he thinks China is moving steadily and smoothly towards a democratic future. Just three minutes of Oz radio to listen to.

 

Joined-up colonialism

December 3, 2014

COUTK 4 COUTK 5

COUTK 3 COUTK 1

COUTK 2 COUTK 6

 

I recently mentioned a compelling new edition of Han Suyin’s beautiful novel And the Rain My Drink, about British conduct in the war against communist insurgency in Malaya after the Second World War.

As luck would have it, writing about British colonial perfidy seems to be the genre du jour, as one of my very favourite journalists, Ed Vulliamy (never met him), files a long investigative report about British conduct in Greece from late 1945 on. It is much the best thing I have read in The Observer for some time, and completely free.

Add a couple more case studies from South Africa, Kenya or Ireland, and we have the beginnings of a joined-up history of British colonialism.

That said, there are marks on both sides of the ledger. As Brave Dave Cameron observed on his visit to India last year: ‘I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British empire did and was responsible for. But of course there were bad events as well as good events. The bad events we should learn from and the good events we should celebrate.’

He’s right. The Carry On movies were tremendous, a real boon to my childhood. And It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, not bad either.

KMT does not feel the love

November 30, 2014

It is worth quickly noting what a beating the KMT just got in local elections in Taiwan, winning only six of 22 contested seats for county and city heads. For the most part, people have had enough of president Ma Ying-jiu and his decidedly lacklustre leadership. This is also the first election on the island since the student protests in Taipei in March, which headed off a new services trade agreement with the mainland. The election results reflect general unease that Ma’s only economic policy is to look to Beijing for more integration and more favours. Plus the Taiwanese public has been following events in Hong Kong closely, where Beijing has breached the spirit of the Basic Law agreement on gradual democratisation. If Beijing cannot be trusted over Hong Kong, why should it be trusted over Taiwan? This seems to be an increasingly telling question when Taiwanese voters encounter a ballot box. It is particularly telling because more and more voters identify themselves as Taiwanese rather than Chinese in each successive election:

TW-CN-identity polls since 1992

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking news on Sunday night suggested that Ma Ying-jiu will resign as Chairman of the KMT.

 

Meanwhile in Hong Kong:

Police use inexcusable violence in clearing protesters in Mong Kok, and arrest and then tell lies about journalists. Steve Vines has good video and analysis of the Mong Kok clearance on the RTHK Pulse programme.

The next day:

Well, HK police attacked demonstrators in Admiralty Monday morning. A wrap here from The Guardian, with video. Meanwhile, a big hoo-ha about Chinese embassy in London telling British MPs they will not be allowed into Hong Kong to investigate what is going on. Hoo-ha because it is probably illegal for Beijing to make such decisions, according to the Basic Law. But since the Hong Kong government will line up behind (or slightly in front) of whatever Beijing decrees, likely not actionable in any court of law.

And no, Ma Ying-jiu over in Taiwan has not said he is stepping down as KMT chairman. Yet. Probably no one quite so fabulous as Brave Number Nine Horse to take over the job.

Taiwan election links:

Bruce Jacobs with a good backgrounder on the hole that the KMT has dug itself, in the Taipei Times. In essence, the KMT has issues dealing with the praxis of democracy.

A psephological breakdown of the election results from Thinking Taiwan.

Reuters special report on the role of (former?) triad leader and convicted heroin trafficker ‘White Wolf’ in supporting the CCP-KMT agenda for reunification. Includes an interview with the Wolf himself.

David Pilling in the FT (sub needed) waxes lyrical and interesting, with the benefit of several days’ hindsight, on the election. Contains a few remarks about the new DPP leader.

Tits and bums

November 24, 2014

Oh, so now you’re paying attention.

In the past couple of weeks I have posted blogs that seemed to me important. About the Xi Jinping-Obama understanding on emissions that paves the way for a global deal to arrest climate change in Paris next year. And about Adair Turner’s argument that governments may have to print money to pay for fiscal expenditure and monetise part of their debts if we are to head off another asset bubble by raising interest rates while at the same time avoiding global economic depression.

Well, these momentous developments have garnered little more than the usual rate of traffic on this blog. So, looking at email addresses of the several hundred people who now subscribe to every single post (dear oh dear), I note that most of you are academics, researchers, money managers, NGO-types and ‘activists’. So it occurs that what you really want is a bit of gratuitous demi-porn to take the edge off your lives of monotonous intellectual mind-wrestling.

Fortunately I am in a position to indulge you. The peg is the recent APEC summit in Beijing, which was important not just for an apparent meeting of minds between the Chinese and US presidents, but also for an alleged pass made by the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, at Xi Jinping’s wife.

Personally, I don’t think there is much to it, although Putin is now officially a single man, which puts him (even more) firmly in the frame in terms of motive. However the extraordinary reaction of Chinese censors, who moved immediately to expunge any trace of Vlad’s let-me-get-your-coat-darling moment from the Chinese Interweb, reminds us that in Chinese Communist Party cultural terms Vlad was indeed on quite thin ice. Here, side by side, are the photo (similar to the one below) briefly posted by Chinese state news agency Xinhua and, to the right, the notice you got shortly after/still get at the same URL saying in Chinese that the page has been deleted.

Obama to Xi: 'Looks like Ukraine is not the only thing Vladimir wants to get into.'

Obama to Xi: ‘Looks like Ukraine is not the only thing Vladimir wants to get into.’

And here is a brief story from Foreign Policy about the whole incident, including a link to video if you really want more.

The Putin-Peng Liyuan (yes, she has a name) frisson got me thinking, as I am sure it has you, about the broader subject of global leaders hitting on other leaders, their wives and partners. So here, in no particular order, are some memorable moments I have been able to come up with:

 

1. Henry Kissinger’s ever-penetrating analysis. These must surely be among the most famous images of the genre, as Henry first enjoys a full frontal review of Lady Diana’s strategic assets, and then follows up from behind with a sly ass-check.

kissinger Di 1 kissinger Di 2

 

 

 

2. The Brezhnev. But did you know that back in 1973 Kissinger’s own date, former Bond girl Jill St. John, was subjected a famous occular eye-over by the leader of the Unfree World, Leonid Brezhnev? In the photo below you can almost see Brezhnev calculating out the potential upside of detente with the Americans. Coincidentally, it was in 1973 that Kissinger was quoted in the New York Times saying that: ‘Power is the ultimate aphrodisiac.’

Brezhnev Jill St John 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here is a shot that shows Kissinger (back to camera) and Jill as another guy (described in Walter Isaacson’s Kissinger biography as a ‘naval aide’) gives Jill’s ass a caressing gaze too.

Brezhnev and Jill St. John at Nixon Pool Party

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3. Size doesn’t matter. Deng Xiaoping. There is no killer photo here, just various official ones like that below. However, when Ronald and Nancy Reagan visited China in 1984 and were received in the Great Hall of the People, Deng said to Nancy (in range of the foreign press corps): ‘I hope you’ ll come the next time and leave the president home.’ After translation, the ever-cool Ron batted the remark away.

Deng XP Nancy R and Ron R

 

 

 

 

 


 

4. Obama-Gucci Helle. These images are so recently famous they hardly bear posting. Except to tee up the less well-known 5., below. Here Obama flirts with Danish prime minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, known to her countrymen as Gucci Helle for her rather un-Danish love of branded designer clothing.

obama helle 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here is the US president after a bollocking from his wife, who was sitting on the other side of him all along. (There is another image of Brave Dave Cameron forcing his way into Helle and Obama’s selfie, but it is just too depressing to post.)

obama no-helle michelle

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Obabma and Lil sis’ Yingluck. Now here is the collector’s item. It is Obama and Thaksin’s little sister Yingluck, who was running Thailand after Thaksin was thrown out in a coup, at least until Yingluck was also thrown out in a coup. What was that song about ‘One night in Bangkok’?

Obama Yingluck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To be fair to Obama, however, I think the story may have been that it was young Yingluck who was providing the come-on.

Obama Yingluck 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vacuous China

November 21, 2014

Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign shows no sign of abating, with admirals and generals fearing for their futures as much as mere civilian bureaucrats and Party cadres. Meanwhile Xi’s vicious clamp-down on dissent goes on apace, with more human rights lawyers being themselves tried on trumped-up charges and Internet censors now firing blunderbusses at great swathes of the webosphere. Today, Ilham Tohti’s life sentence has been confirmed by an appeal ‘court’ that held its ‘hearing’ inside his detention centre.

So, what better time to discover a video of Chinese rich kid students in California flaunting their Bentleys, Maseratis, Porsches and more?

Are you watching, Mr Mao?

 

A little clear thinking

November 18, 2014

I am posting a number of documents by Adair Turner relating to the concept of ‘helicopter money’. The term was coined by Milton Friedman and refers to the idea of simply dropping money into an economy to expand the monetary base without any commitment by a government or central bank to ‘pay’ for the money. Indeed, the point is to increase money supply, possibly permanently, in order to pay for government expenditure.

Printing money to cover a government’s bills is never going to be an easy policy to sell. But Turner has bravely put this option on the table because the place to which the major economies of the world are heading under current policy may actually be worse.

How so? Turner’s point is that the policy of central banks expanding their balance sheets and flooding financial markets with cash to force down interest rates to zero is merely fuelling asset bubbles – in real estate, in stocks, and even now in things like fine art. What the world needs is a return to somewhat higher interest rates to head off another speculative bubble and bust (selling some Apple shares yesterday at 18 times earnings and more than four times what I paid for them reminds me we may already be in bubble territory). The problem, of course, is that higher interest rates cannot come at the expense of another collapse in the demand in the real economy and hence a spiral of 1930s-style deflation. Logically, as Turner argues, the only option may therefore be to expand the monetary base, create a bit of inflation to allow a meaningful rate of interest, and simultaneously use the printed cash pay off some government debt and fund expenditures that maintain real economic growth.

Such a policy would (probably) put the fiscal boot on the other foot compared with the past six years. Almost all UK and US policy since 2008 has favoured those with assets – real estate, stocks and bonds — as asset values have been restored by the near-zero interest rate policy. If rates rise, those who hold assets under leverage will pay more debt service and asset prices will come under pressure. On the other hand, a positive real interest rate gives those with only a bit of cash (the young, the poor) some return on their money in the bank, while money creation can pay for lower taxes on work and investment in things like infrastructure. In other words, such a policy tilts the table away from those with assets and towards those without assets but with a willingness to work for a living. You begin to see quite how outrageous this proposal is…

The proposition is indeed shocking. However it is a measure of the times in which we live that you really should read what Turner is saying. He is not a red, and nor are the economists (like Milton Friedman and Irving Fisher) whom he cites in support. Turner is pretty much an Establishment figure…

The lightest iteration of what Turner is saying is an FT opinion piece from last week. I have not done this before, but I am reproducing it in the hope the FT won’t pursue me for breach of copyright. (Having only been paid £250 for my recent opinion piece for them, perhaps they will decide they owe me a bonus; one notes that deflation is already haunting the Pink’Un.)

November 10, 2014

Printing money to fund deficit is the fastest way to raise rates

By Adair Turner

No technical reasons exist for rejecting this, only the fear of breaking a taboo, writes Adair Turner

What is the right course for monetary policy? The International Monetary Fund seems to answer with forked tongue. Its latest World Economic Outlook urges that monetary policy should stay loose to stimulate growth. Yet its Global Financial Stability Review warns that loose monetary policy risks creating financial instability, which could crimp growth. In fact the best policy is to print money and raise interest rates. That sounds contradictory, but it is not.

The global economy is suffering the hangover from many decades of excessive private sector credit growth. In 1950 private credit in advanced economies was 50 per cent of gross domestic product; by 2007 it was 170 per cent.

After the 2008 crisis, households and companies began trying to pay back what they owed. This depressed consumption and investment, generating large fiscal deficits as tax revenues fell and social expenditure rose. It then seemed essential to balance public sector accounts, which has depressed growth further and made deleveraging harder.

Debt owed by the public and private sectors has actually increased as a proportion of GDP, from 170 per cent five years ago to 200 per cent today. Weak demand has led to below-target inflation in all major economies.

Economists agree that this is how we got into the current mess, but they disagree about how to get out of it. Some, such as Paul Krugman and Lawrence Summers, argue for more relaxed fiscal policies. Cutting taxes or increasing public expenditure is the most certain way to stimulate demand. In Milton Friedman’s words it is an injection directly “into the income stream”. But this route out of recession would increase public debt even further. It seems blocked.

Instead, most countries have opted to combine fiscal tightening with ultra-loose monetary policy, setting short-term interest rates close to zero and using quantitative easing to reduce long-term rates and boost asset prices.

There are no technical reasons to reject such measures, only the fear of breaking a taboo.

But there are dangers. Sustained low interest rates create incentives for highly leveraged financial engineering. They make it easier for uncompetitive companies to survive, which could stymie productivity growth. And they work by restarting growth in private credit – which is what led to our current predicament. The Bank for International Settlements therefore argues that monetary policy should be tightened as well as fiscal, but that would depress demand yet further.

We should indeed seek a swift return to higher interest rates, to remove the dangerous subsidy to high leverage. But paradoxically, the best way to do that, particularly in Japan and the eurozone, would be to deploy a variant of Friedman’s idea of dropping money from a helicopter. Government deficits should temporarily increase, and they should be financed with new money created by the central bank and added permanently to the money supply.

Money-financed deficits would increase demand without creating debts that have to be serviced. This would lift either real output or inflation and allow interest rates to return to normal more quickly. True, banks might amplify the stimulus by creating additional private credit, but they can be restrained with higher reserve requirements.

There are no technical reasons to reject this option, only the fear that once we break the taboo, money-financed deficits will be used on too large a scale.

Despite that fear, de facto monetisation is inevitable in some countries, even if policy makers deny it.

Japan’s official policy involves using sales tax increases to make government debts sustainable, while massive monetary stimulus spurs inflation and growth. In fact there is no believable scenario in which Japan will generate fiscal surpluses sufficient to pay back its debts, nor one in which the Bank of Japan will sell all its holdings of government debt back to the market.

All the same, the pretence undermines the effectiveness of the policy. Japan should either delay the next sales tax increase, or announce a temporary fiscal stimulus financed with new money. It should make clear that the debt the government owes the central bank will never need to be repaid, dispelling fears of a massive future fiscal tightening.

Orthodox theory sees helicopter money as risky. But current quantitative easing policies are at least as risky, and have produced adverse side effects. In the UK the Bank of England has bought £375bn of government bonds to try to stimulate the economy through swollen asset prices and rock-bottom interest rates. It could instead have created new money to finance a smaller one-off increase in the fiscal deficit. If it had done so, a return to normal interest rate disciplines would now be nearer.

 

More. Turner for grown-ups:

Turner’s original CASS business school speech on this subject (2013)

And the slides that go with the CASS speech. (Lots of them, but many worth having if you live in the UK and are about to have people knocking on your door in the run-up to the May national elections asking you to vote for them. ‘Come in,’ you can say. ‘Have a seat and let’s look at the slides together!’)

A bit of Q&A with Turner and Michael Woodford from the Institute For New Economic Thinking blog.

Finally, on Thursday 20 November, the UK parliament will hold a backbench debate on the topic of ‘money creation and society’. It will be the first time that the issue has been addressed in a full debate in the House since the 19th century. You can watch here on Parliament TV and discover just how ill-equipped our politicians are to deal with the aftermath of the global financial crisis.

 

 

Dieting Fat Controller still loves a pork pie

November 8, 2014

 

 


osborne 2014 vs 2013

 

 

Britain’s Chancellor George Osborne has lost an impressive amount of weight in the past year. So much so that I was thinking I might have to stop calling him The Fat Controller.

Fat Controller in front of trains

It turns out, however, that George still loves a pork pie.

Witness the recent furore over Britain’s increased European Commission bill to reflect an upward revision to the estimated size of the British economy. The bill is linked to the size of the economy, then Britain gets a rebate (negotiated back in the 1980s) to reflect Britain’s relatively lower receipts of EU agricultural subsidies.

Anyhow, first Brave Dave Cameroon said he wasn’t going to pay the £1.7 billion extra charge. Then people slightly less dim than Cameron realised that Britain has to pay the bill, because there is nothing unusual or exceptional about it. It is just the regular bill, amended on the basis of statistical revisions that occur periodically in all statistical systems.

So now the Fat Controller is claiming in the press to have ‘halved’ the £1.7 billion bill. What he means is that because there is an automatic rebate, the bill is really only about £850 million. But George wants to pretend this represents him having ‘negotiated a deal’ with the EU on a trip to Brussels this week.

He has done no such thing. George’s trip secured some very marginal fiddling around with payment due dates, doubtless because EU officials just wanted to get him out of the building as fast as possible. But he hasn’t ‘negotiated’ anything of any substance. Whatsoever.

Instead, George is just telling bare-faced Porky Pies. Like some fantasist kid in a school playground.

And that is why I am going to continue to call him the Fat Controller. No matter how much weight he loses.

 

More:

The Guardian explains pretty clearly.


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