Sunday, February 15, 2009

Layer 122 Benjamin Dover and the Pig Roast; The Culture of Greed

This should have been posted two days ago.

If you have time for a moment of Zen today then consider this - the civil servant who accepted the most invitations to corporate hospitality last year, the guy who on more than 50 occasions bent over, spread his cheeks and said to his pals in the business sector, “Stick it in there, boys”, was called Sir Brian Bender.

SIR Brian? For services to corporate cluster fucks, presumably. As the astute Matthew Parris said on R4 this morning, you have to admire someone who has that level of dedication to self interest and corporate self-interest. It can’t be easy spending so much time schmoozing with slimy business lobbyists and boring PR arseholes. I paraphrase Matthew, and his remarks were far more subtle and witty, but you get the point.

Yesterday’s moment of amusement was provided by an article in the Guardian pointing out that the film Slumdog Millionaire has been a great boon to headline writers. Apparently the Sun had an article about bankers with the headline Scumbag Millionaires, and on the sports pages Kevin Pieterson was described as a dumb-slog millionaire. Private Eye also has a cartoon of KP with the same caption. Excellent.


It’s impossible to overstate what an appalling individual Hazel Blears truly is. This ghastly muppet had the nerve to put herself forward as a candidate for the deputy leadership of NuLabour, and was duly trounced, coming last in a five dog race. Which probably struck her as grossly unfair since she’s consistently been a slavish adherent to every neo-conservative policy put forward by her party leaders, unlike at least one of the other candidates.

I mentioned briefly in Layer 119 that she’d had the ‘audacity’ (i.e. foolishness) to write a repost to George Monbiot’s recent piece in the Guardian, calling him cynical, blah, blah, blab, blears.

Since then I’ve been looking forward to George’s next column, licking my lips in anticipation, and duly feasted on it this week. Well done George! Hazel on a skewer, on a spit - a pig roast of the first order. Wonderful stuff.

Just what exactly do you stand for, Hazel Blears - except election?

The minister claims to have political guts, but the only principle her voting record shows is slavish obedience.

An open letter to Hazel Blears MP, secretary of state for communities and local government.

Last week you used an article in the Guardian to attack my "cynical and corrosive commentary". You asserted your political courage, maintaining that "you don't get very far in politics without guts, and certainly not as far as the cabinet table". By contrast, you suggested, I contribute "to the very cynicism and disengagement from politics" that I make my living writing about.

Courage in politics is measured by the consistent application of principles. The website records votes on key issues since 2001. It reveals that you voted "very strongly for the Iraq war", "very strongly against an investigation into the Iraq war" and "very strongly for replacing Trident" ("very strongly" means an unbroken record). You have voted in favour of detaining terror suspects without charge for 42 days, in favour of identity cards and in favour of a long series of bills curtailing the freedom to protest. There's certainly consistency here, though it is not clear what principles you are defending.

Other threads are harder to follow. In 2003, for instance, you voted against a fully elected House of Lords and in favour of a chamber of appointed peers. In 2007, you voted for a fully elected House of Lords. You have served without public complaint in a government which has introduced the minimum wage but blocked employment rights for temporary and agency workers; which talked of fiscal prudence but deregulated the financial markets; which passed the Climate Change Act but approved the construction of a third runway at Heathrow; which spoke of an ethical foreign policy but launched an illegal war in which perhaps a million people have died. Either your principles, by some remarkable twists of fate, happen to have pre-empted every contradictory decision this government has taken, or you don't possess any.

You remained silent while the government endorsed the kidnap and the torture of innocent people; blocked a ceasefire in Lebanon and backed a dictator in Uzbekistan who boils his prisoners to death. You voiced no public concern while it instructed the Serious Fraud Office to drop the corruption case against BAE, announced a policy of pre-emptive nuclear war, signed a one-sided extradition treaty with the United States and left our citizens to languish in Guantánamo Bay. You remained loyal while it oversaw the stealthy privatisation of our public services and the collapse of Britain's social housing programme, closed hundreds of post offices and shifted taxation from the rich to the poor. What exactly do you stand for Hazel, except election?

The only consistent political principle I can deduce from these positions is slavish obedience to your masters. TheyWorkForYou sums up your political record thus: "Never rebels against their party in this parliament." Yours, Hazel, is the courage of the sycophant, the courage to say yes.

It seems to me that someone of your principles would fit comfortably into almost any government. All regimes require people like you, who seem to be prepared to obey orders without question. Unwavering obedience guarantees success in any administration. It also guarantees collaboration in every atrocity in which a government might engage. The greatest thing we have to fear in politics is the cowardice of politicians.

I believe there is a vast public appetite for re-engagement, but your government, aware of the electoral consequences, has shut us out. It has reneged on its promise to hold a referendum on electoral reform. It has blocked a referendum on the European treaty, ditched the regional assemblies, used Scottish MPs to swing English votes, sustained an unelected House of Lords, eliminated almost all the differences between itself and the opposition. You create an impenetrable political monoculture, then moan that people don't engage in politics.

It is precisely because I can picture something better that I have become such a cynical old git. William Hazlitt remarked that: "Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are and what they ought to be." You, Hazel, have helped to reduce our political choices to a single question: whether to laugh through our tears or weep through our laughter.


Meanwhile Polly Toynbee wrote an excellent column this week, headed:

End this culture of greed. If Obama can, Labour must.

Culture change may be coming, but it's not here yet. The financial sector will pay itself £3.6bn in bonuses this month: banks are rumoured to be rushing to beat any proposed cap. Even 70% state-owned RBS will pay generously, despite losing £28bn at the blackjack tables of investment banking.

Barack Obama's thundering words resounded around the world this week. He castigated "disgusting payoffs" and "lavish bonuses", fixing a $500,000 pay cap on bailed-out banks and firms. Is it heartening or depressing that Labour only dares echo such words when Obama has said them? It raised top tax two weeks after Obama won an election promising the same. After 12 years of celebrating the filthy rich, Peter Mandelson finally tells RBS to reconsider "exorbitant bonuses" and "how it looks and what public opinion will be".

The rationale for runaway pay was market competition; but the crisis revealed they were not brilliant, just deluded group-thinkers harvesting bonuses in a rising market. Often, when meeting them, they seemed lacking in intellectual curiosity, ignorant about ordinary life, breathtakingly selfish, and to have testosterone where their brains should be. Ask the universities: those heading for the City are rarely the cleverest, just the greediest.

What could be done? Abolish bonuses altogether. The evidence is that they don't work or have perverse effects. Performance-related pay demotivates losers without motivating winners. Changing the greed culture needs champions, so turn the Low Pay Commission, which sets the minimum wage, into a pay commission with a remit to set guidelines on the maximum shareholders should tolerate. Obama's $500,000 translates in the UK to 15 times the median pay of £23,000. That seems a generous maximum: CEO total pay packages have risen in the UK to 75 times the average pay within a company.

At this budget Labour should consider reward from top to bottom. It would be the right time to raise the minimum wage. If inflation is likely to be zero or less, will benefits be adjusted accordingly? Labour should take steps to narrow the great income divide in this last chance to halve child poverty by 2010. That would cost £2.7bn - less than this month's City bonuses.

Obama arrives to clean up the explosive aftermath of Cheney-Bush neo-conomics. He reasserts the communal values of the state and public services, and the fairer distribution of rewards.

But in the UK everything is out of joint. It should be Labour riding to the rescue after a Tory era of City excess, debt and bubble. The idea that the Tories can reinvent themselves as the nation's saviour from the City culture is bizarre. They are the City, and the City roots for them, however ardently Labour wooed its denizens.


Scams and Scumbags

This month is the Office of Fair Trade’s Scams Awareness Month. According to the OFT at their Consumer Direct site, almost 3 million UK consumers fall victim to Internet, post, email, text and phone scams, costing in the area of £3.5 billion per year.

£3.5 billion. Every year. And most of those are probably the old and gullible and the young and naïve, who are the people least likely to be able to cope with being cheated and robbed. We live in a world full of scumbags and complete *&$%*!$%££! Words fail me. Bankers, politicians, lawyers, tax accountants, estate agents, and scammers.

My mum’s phone bill was considerably higher than it should have been last quarter as a result of phoning premium rate numbers to claim prizes she was supposed to have won, spending at least £1 on each call. She knows better now, but the conniving bastards who devise these scams surely ought to be locked up at their own expense? How come we don’t do it?

Off with all their heads.

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