Disproportion.

hammer nut

 

(Note: This story contains some mild descriptions of violence).

When I was a young teenager I was playing football on the playground at school in my dinner break with my friends. Not for the first time, a thug from our year came up and took the ball from us and started kicking it around to his mates. My friends and I were generally pretty meek people and had to put up this kind of thing.

This time, however, I decided to try and tackle the bully to get the ball back. When I did he fell over as a result and got his shiny new coat wet. I hadn’t intended to knock him over, that’s just what happened as he tried to shield the ball from me and I put a leg out to get at it. As I walked away holding the ball, I knew what I had let myself in for. This guy had a reputation for being pretty vicious. I’m not talking about ruffled hair or tipped out bags, I’m talking about violence.

I rolled the ball back to my friend and prepared to face up to the inevitable. He was approaching, red in the face, swearing and threatening me. Already a crowd had gathered. ‘Fight!’ they shouted, as usual. The bully was my height, but twice my build, with a shaved head and his fists clenched. I’d never been in a fight before, so in the few seconds I had to think about it, I decided I needed to do something.

I tried to punch him. It probably wasn’t the best decision, but it felt like the only possible way I could avoid it happening to me. I missed, having never thrown a punch before with the intention of actually hitting someone. He recoiled from my feeble swing, which was further impeded by my school bag falling off my shoulder and dragging down my arm. The next thing I saw was his knuckles coming towards my face. He didn’t miss. He didn’t miss the first time, but I didn’t go down. He didn’t miss the second time, but I didn’t go down. He didn’t miss the third time when my nose exploded in a cloud of scarlet and still I stood. I should have gone down.

After this he got me in a tight headlock. He was strong. His boasts and reputation were not unfounded. As I was held there, dripping from my nose onto his black trousers, he said to me, “We better calm this down now, there’s a dinner lady watching.”

At this I became angry. Up until that point it had just been a series of sharp pains and confusion, but that statement brought it into focus. How could I calm down the complete beating I was getting? I hadn’t started it. It had started long ago across all the stolen footballs, threats, beatings and taunts that most other people had to put up with at the whim of people like him on a daily basis.

I tried to act, but I don’t know how to fight. I tried to lift his knee to get him off me and topple him backwards. Instead, he brought it to my face, three times, further smashing my already popped nose. Then he let go, and I went to the office to get myself cleaned up. The next day I had concussion and couldn’t come to school.

Nothing of any real consequence happened to the lad. In theory I had started it with my  feeble attempt at a punch. Before that is was just playground squabbling. I had incited the violence that followed by my desperate attempt at pre-emptive defence.

What interests me with this memory, is whether this was a fair decision? Did I deserve the level of violence that I incurred because I tried to stand up for myself? My instinct tells me no, but the bare facts of the matter sound different. Consider this version of events:

Today at school someone tried to steal my football. I knocked him over and then tried to punch him. He defended himself and I came off worse.

It’s so easy to twist facts around to make the situation sound more two sided than it was, to try and engender sympathy for the disproportional response by glossing over the history and context of the matter. You may disagree with me and think I should of stayed my hand and waited till I was hit first, or gone down after the first punch and curled up in a little ball. You may think that I sacrificed any right to blame or victim status because I tried to do something rather than wait passively for something to happen that all reason and experience told me was certain.

You may think that, but it doesn’t feel right to me.

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Give them Flowers – Coop update

Regular readers may have noticed that, given the recent furore involving the Cooperative and my previous blogs about them, I haven’t yet taken the opportunity to write something new about the whole sorry affair. Well, if you have noticed that, then this is it.

As you may know by now, over the years I have developed a cautious (some may say cynical) mistrust of the flow of information as it is presented to us by the usual conduits. So when a story that has been simmering away for years suddenly breaks open thanks to a catalytic event like a drug-snorting, rent-boy loving Minister with no banking experience or apparently, any fear of discovery, I take a step back and just think, hmm, (affecting a cockney accents) “waz all this abaat then?”.

I don’t want to speculate about Paul Flowers drug habits, it seems quite obvious from the material released by the Daily Mail that he is a frequent and experienced lifestyle drug user. The more interesting questions I think, are, why now? What purpose does this serve (if any)? And how does this relate to the wider issues?

If the narrative of the media is to be believed, here is a man who has blazed a trail of incompetence and hedonism throughout his career in various guises, as a bank chairman, a Methodist minister, a Labour councillor and as a representative in various charities over several years. The floodgates have opened, it’s all coming out now, as if a thousand whistle-blowers have only just learned how to blow.

So what does this mean, given that it took the moral outrage of a man he met on a dating site, who attended drug parties with him and decided to secretly film him out of disgust with his hypocrisy, for this all to come to light? We could believe that large sections of the banking, political, religious and  even charity fraternities were all so naive and trusting as to not have noticed his behaviour over the years. As if this was a surprise and shock to them all – but that can’t be true, can it? Not given the deluge of past indiscretions that have now surfaced. So scrap that. But what’s the alternative? That at least some of these people did know about his lifestyle choices and inadequate faculties for the positions of power he held?

That latter option, which seems logical, is far more intriguing and worrying. What if, for example, key figures were acutely aware of his character, and used that to their advantage? It may sound far-fetched to you, but is it as far-fetched as a man who managed to avoid other major scandals from surfacing throughout his career, suddenly being caught out by a bloke with an iphone? If so, this incompetent buffoon (Flowers I mean), was up until that point, a master of deception and discretion, which doesn’t fit the narrative we are being given.

The obvious reason for having a fall guy like him at the top of a politically aligned bank, is that if it all goes wrong, you can just point the finger and say “he did it”. Which, given the ongoing inquiries into the Coop/Lloyds fiasco and the Coop’s own legacy funding problems, seems like a good time to do it, don’t you think? “Oh,” we collectively sigh, “it’s because they were being run by a druggy rent boy using idiot… that explains it then.”

But it really doesn’t, does it? And I know that the parties have all started slinging mud around as to who knew him, and how much they knew him and so forth, but despite that, the more important questions will now sit behind a sleazy, tabloid image of Paul Flowers in a car park buying crack, and jokes about crystal Methodists.

There are still some massively important questions to be asked about the whole affair, the majority of which sat not just with this one chairman, but with the various executive management teams, the interested political parties and the limp regulators. For the sake of posterity, I will record them here:

1.            The Buterfill Act.

When the Coop and Britannia announced the ‘merger’ of two profitable companies that had complementary synergies and would form a ‘super-mutual’ alternative to the big high street banks (that had been oh-so damaged by the global crash) – there was just one problem – just a little problem, nothing major really – THE LAW.

It was currently not possible for a bank to merge with a mutual, and as the Coop is basically a bank (with the only shareholder being the customer base) an act of parliament had to be drafted and passed before the house in order to allow this transaction to take place. The act was sponsored by Conservative peer, Sir John Buterfill, and passed, after it was announced the two businesses would merge.

At the time, Paul Flowers was still chairman of the Coop (a Labour councillor remember) while a Tory peer sponsored the act to allow a Labour (and Lib Dem) supporting bank to merge with a Building Society. It is hard to believe that this act did not attract the most careful scrutiny at the time, given the various interested parties and specific nature of its creation.

The customers and staff were told that both businesses were viable, profitable, and mostly unscathed by the credit crunch. They were told this was a merger, yet, even though the law of the land had to change, and massive regulator involvement was needed, this turned out not to be the case.

On a separate note, I was told directly (at a later date) that this was not the case. Britannia was in trouble, and without the take-over, sorry, I mean, merger, it would have gone down the pan. Which leads me to:

2.            The Britannia Members Vote to merge.

Given the above, and what has transpired, I would suggest that the entire member base of Britannia was deceived into voting for the merger to take place. The member vote was constitutionally necessary, and a bright rosy picture of synergies and super mutual’s was painted. If this turns out not to be the case – who is responsible, and what recompense or punishment is due? Given that we now know there was a bad loan book (all be it, not as bad as it is being represented by the Coop in recent inquiries) – this seems to be highly likely.

3.            The write-down of IT.

I worked for the Coop during the ill-fated IT upgrade that eventually cost them around £148 million according to their own accounting, which as we have seen, is probably not to be trusted. I would wonder if perhaps (again as was hinted to me directly) – a little creative accounting reduced this number down from a much more substantial figure. How was this figure arrived upon? A close look at the balance sheet may be a good idea. I worked on this project (all be it in a junior capacity) and the figures that were being quoted throughout the three years it was ongoing, were higher than this, much, much higher than this. Senior figures were popping off left right and centre when it became clear the IT upgrade was not happening, and apparently the Coop had been at it for many years before the Britannia merger, and still to no avail.

This may seem a smaller point that the others, but this is customers money they were spending, and the big accounting firms, the IT company itself and many third party contractors, all got their slice and left the company with virtually nothing to show for it. (not to mention the executive wages and pay-offs throughout).

So, I think that will do for now. There are obviously dozens more questions to be answered, many of which being heard by the select committee at the moment, but given the close political links to this affair, are they really best suited to be investigating this?

I would hate to see the media narrative use the whole sorry Flowers affair to divert attention from these issues. Let’s not forget that the culmination of all these failings is that both the UKs second biggest mutual (the Britannia) and biggest member owned cooperative are looking likely to end up mostly owned by American hedge funds as a result of all this, or in need of a bail out etc… So the ‘survivors’ of the Global Crash have finally caught up with the rest of the financial industry, it just took some twists and turns to get there.

Let us also not forget, that we still have not seen senior figures of financial institutions, political parties, regulators or big accounting firms go to prison or face any meaningful punishment for what they did to us all, quite the opposite in fact, they were handed their lifestyle back on a plate, and we were told to swallow austerity as a consequence.

So, they can give us Flowers, but it’s not enough.

The slippery slopes of privacy and data.

“If you haven’t done something wrong, then there’s nothing to worry about.”

We’ve all heard that right? When there’s a debate or a scandal happening about privacy or identity, like the emerging saga of the ‘Prism’ systems in the USA that have been harvesting our private data and allegedly been giving access to our intelligence services, thereby circumnavigating the legal process we have in this country for access to private data.

It seems like such a straightforward rebuke, a simple piece of logic. If you haven’t done anything wrong, or are not planning to do something wrong, then why should you be worried about the idea of the state accessing your private communications? At the end of the day, all they are going to find is that your ‘data’ is innocuous, innocent interactions about your daily life, of no consequence to national security.

The problem, for the unthinking who take this view, is that what we decided is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ when it comes to the state, and whether we are subject to the authority of each and every law, is one of the oldest and most highly debated topics of philosophy, because it is one of the oldest and most highly debated issues that exists in humanity as we know it. Questions like, “why should we obey the state?”, “Who gave them authority over us (and when)?”, “When did I agree to these conditions and give my consent?” are as old as Plato and beyond.

And they are very important questions that lead to very interesting, if not clear, answers. In the example of ‘Prism’ and its fight against terrorism by harvesting our data, a few imaginary scenarios should start to highlight the problem.

The first one I will call ‘The Extreme Inheritor’ problem. Simply put, at some point at a future election, an extreme party manages to secure power. By extreme, I mean a party that has hard-line views. They may have only been voted in on one issue, but now they are in control of the whole state functions. And what do they inherit? An infrastructure that allows them to gather, filter and view all our correspondences on all our various online interactions. How will they use this data? Even if we believe the current administration to be a fair and just custodian of this information, only using it for the kind of threats we agree with, how can we be sure the new keepers will do the same? They may want to search out sympathisers who stand against their extreme view (which by matter of degree, given their position, is highly likely), and bring sanctions against them. They may have a very different concept of justice than you do, and what you thought was right and wrong before, has become inverted or has significantly shifted.

The next ramification could be a ‘Temptation Shift in the Custodians’. In this scenario, the existing administration discover, naturally, the new powers available to them, the scope and possibilities that it brings. Now that they can conceive of and examine the new options that arise from the powers granted to them, they are at least aware of the possibilities. To find a suitable analogy, suspend your beliefs, or lack of, and think of it as a ‘road to paradise’ that we discover, but we also find that it runs through all the temptations of hell. Do we trust the current leaders to not give into the temptations, now they travel so close to them and are in touching distance? How long can they travel down the long road with the whispering demons promising spoils and temptations in such close proximity? Would it not have been better to find a road that does not run this way at all, or if unavoidable, only runs past hell on the least occasions? Even if this road is shorter, is it worth the risk?

The third and final possibility is the ‘bribery, threats and collusion problem’. I have seen defenders of this invasion of privacy making comments like “If the government look into my online communications, they will probably knock on my door and tell me to get a life!”. Basically saying that the majority of us live such dull and uninteresting lives that there can be no value in any data gathered. Who would care that you were visiting your elderly relative that day? Or that you have a new partner? Or that you work for a cheese factory? On the face of it, this data may seem innocuous enough, supposing that you believe your life will forever not be of worth, that the world may never change around you, and that you will never be in a position to be bribed or threatened. Say however, something does change (heaven forbid), and you become aware of some corporate negligence that had led to the deaths of your colleagues, and you wish to report this. If there was an interested party who would prefer you not to, they now know your family arrangements, your loved ones who you hold dear, and the extent to which you would go to protect them. This is a small example, and you may think, not very likely. But as we don’t know the future, as terrible things happen naturally and by design, to think ‘it will never happen to me’ is just ignorance. It may never happen to you, but I warrant that anyone can be in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time’ regardless of how boring a life they aspire to lead.

The objections I imagine, will be made along the lines of ‘checks and balances’. Some agents, above moral corruption, will conceive and enforce measures in order to prevent the powers being abused. Yes, we may sail close to the rocks, but a ‘reliable navigator’ will make sure we never stray too far. This objection has at least two faults.

In the case of the ‘Extreme Inheritor’, remaining with the nautical theme, we would have to rely on the mutineers who have now taken over the ship, maintaining the ‘reliable navigator’. The likelihood of this is as unclear as the agenda of any group we can imagine taking power in the future. Most, if not all, administrations usually start their terms in power by making any constitutional shifts to the frameworks they operate within, usually in order to favour themselves and their causes. Often these changes, concerning as they do a host of specific and convoluted legal and bureaucratic decree’s, go unnoticed by the general electorate, and like most decisions, are not passed by referendum. It is easy to imagine the extreme inheritor blatantly or subtlety removing the checks and balances that were designed to prevent them abusing powers.

The second objection to the ‘reliable navigator’ in the case of the ‘Temptation shift of the custodians’ practically runs along the same lines as the first, though may be less dynamic and as a result more subtle as the temptation shifts towards the new position. I would argue that this is the most likely and most worrying scenario, as unlike the ‘extreme inheritor’, a shift of this sort would necessarily be made gradually and secretly, so as to maintain custody of the powers without protest. The aim would be to almost imperceptibly degrade or transform the role of the ‘reliable navigator’ over time, until it is now only reliably navigating us down a route we didn’t originally want to follow.

A further objection would be the case of ‘statutory underpinning’ or something similar, that aims to ensure that no succeeding government can tinker or change the operations and positions of the ‘reliable navigator’. To make them ‘locked out’ like black-box technology, a kind of immovable and unchangeable moral foundation to wit all future humanity must adhere to. To this I would say that we are over-reaching our temporal influence. To imagine we can set dictates now for the future of humanity, that will last as truth beyond such a time as our own generations have long since perished, is an absurd notion. To put in motion a boulder down a mountain because we live at the top and our villages are well clear of it, when we have no knowledge of the life in the slopes below, is irresponsible, presuming you have any concern for the future of our race.

To briefly bring this back to the real world examples, we also have questions of security versus commercial interests. The material gathered about our lives will undoubtedly be of great commercial value to private enterprise. You may not be concerned about receiving tailor made adverts to your desktop based on your browsing habits (as happens already), but even so, what if this data sheds enough light on our group habits as to allow price-fixing models and the distortion of the market beyond what we already endure now? This is more a case for political science that philosophy, but it is worth mentioning here as another example of unforeseen consequences.

I hope here to have shown the folly of adopting the ‘greater security means less liberty’ argument by highlighting what high risks such a statement, at least in this case, could lead to – namely a reduction both in security and liberty. It has too great a capacity to be ultimately self-defeating and we should not set such a risky precedent. If it has already began, as it seems to have been, it should be reversed immediately before these risks can be manifest.