Thursday, 31 July 2014

An Ode to Pankaj Singh or The woeful world of Pankaj Singh

Jarrod Kimber in Cricinfo

Lawrence Booth, editor of Wisden, met Pankaj Singh in a lift. They talked about Pankaj's day, which turned into Pankaj's luck. It was exactly the sort of conversation you would expect from any bowler in the world when talking about a wicketless day. At the end, Pankaj left Booth with the words: "That is cricket".
There is a ball that Pankaj Singh bowled in the IPL that hit the pitch and cleared the keeper's head. That is a combination of pace and bounce. He also has swing. Lovely curling outswing that he can maintain even with an older ball. Then there is his offcutter. That makes him a bowler who can move the ball both ways, get bounce and bowl in the mid-80s mph.
His action is uncomplicated and rugged. His body seems to have been chipped from solid stone. His wrist position at release is good. He has got a smart bowling brain. He works with his captain on his fields. He works batsmen out. He bowls to plans. He is willing to do grunt work.
This is an international bowler. And for the last ten years he has been a domestic bowler. This Test may send him back there.
If you were playing Indian Quick Bowler Bingo, Pankaj would go close to completing your sheet. He played U-19 cricket for India, went to the MRF pace factory, was a quick bowler, became a slower swing bowler, played one ODI, toured Australia without bowling a ball and then went about playing some IPL.
Pankaj is not a good IPL bowler. He averages 33 with the ball; he goes at over 8 an over. When you YouTube an Indian bowler's name, you generally just find clips of them disappearing into riotous, crowds. Pankaj has a large selection of them. It's not his format. So there is no hype for him.
Between his tour of Australia and this tour, India have used roughly 43 million other fast bowlers. Despite the fact that year after year Pankaj is near the top of the wicket-takers list in first-class cricket. Despite the fact that he has helped Rajasthan win the Ranji Trophy. Despite the fact he is obviously just a really good cricketer.
His one ODI game was in the Zimbabwean Triangular series of 2010, which was a tournament so useless, relocated witnesses running from the mob could have sat openly in the stands and not been found. His first ball almost took the edge of Upal Tharanga. But he ended with no wickets that day as well. He disappeared off India's radar so completely that he might as well have been in a witness relocation programme.
Cricket Journalists ooze cynicism from every single pore of their being. It's the first thing you're asked about when you apply for the job. So it's rare that they get behind someone with match figures of 0 for 179. Usually that would invoke snide remarks, casual jokes and general chuckles. Something about Pankaj meant they didn't do that.
Cries of "Get Pankaj on", "Give Pankaj a bowl", "Come on Pankaj" were heard as Pankaj thudded around the outfield. Sure, they still laughed when he fell over fielding the simplest ball. But no one thought he deserved the worst figures ever by a debutant. No one thought he hadn't been unlucky. No one wanted the loveable lug to fail.
Even on Twitter where snark is king, people just seemed to feel sorry for him.
"@reverse_sweeper Please, someone give Pankaj a hug. Is there a backroom guy for that?"
"‪@SpiceBoxofEarth Would be a real shame if Pankaj Singh was judged on just his figures alone. This has been a very decent debut. "
"Yogesh ‏@YOGESHBOND The Oscar for making the unluckiest debut ever in tests goes to pankaj singh.. This guy needs a jaadu ki jhappi.. #UnluckyPankaj "
"Mark Pougatch ‏@markpougatch I'm not alone am I in really wanting Pankaj Singh to get a wicket?"
He is the MHMOTS (Most huggable man of the series).
A right arm bowler coming around the wicket to a left hand batsman that can take the ball away is quite a skill. Few can do it. Pankaj can. He angles the ball in, Cook pushes at it as it seams away. His pace and bounce ensure it carries to slip. But Jadeja doesn't take it.
Later Dhoni will try one of his leg slip traps to Ballance. To help make it work, Pankaj bowls the perfect inswinger on middle stump which Ballance gets enough bat on for it just to drop short of leg slip.
At the 80 over mark, Pankaj is promoted to new ball bowler status. Reward for being the best bowler of the day. Then he placed a ball on leg stump. Every single batsman in the world knew that meant it was slipping down leg. But it didn't slip down, it didn't even straighten, it came back towards middle. It was the ball swing bowlers wet dream over. It could not have been more perfect.
Pankaj appealed.
He appealed like he was trying to feed his family, his village, and every single person he had ever met. It was about as emotive as a human being could be. It was the closest any human being had ever been to making themselves explode. He wanted a wicket, he deserved a wicket, every single molecule that went into this impressive chunk of cricketer pleaded for a wicket.
Not out.
Rohit Sharma got a wicket with a ball that missed the bat. Moeen Ali got one from a half tracker. And Ravi Jadeja, the man who cost Pankaj a wicket, and perhaps India a Test, took one with a half tracker down the legside that if you received it in the nets you would catch it and throw it back.
Pankaj did not bowl overs full of the sweetest peaches at all times, he also bowled poorly. He couldn't group the ball together enough. He got tired. And when England attacked he didn't seem to have many answers.
The worst was Buttler. Buttler 'Bryce McGained' Pankaj. In five balls he took 20 runs. Pankaj probably won't remember much more than a front leg clearing and a bat flying through. But the 20 runs in that over in England's first innings was the 20 runs that helped him fly past Sohail Khan and Bryce McGain as the worst-ever bowling figures by a debutant in Test cricket history.
If he was unlucky not to get a wicket, then we need a new word to describe that achievement.
There are many small things to like about Pankaj. On day one, it was his nipples. Which were probably the best seam bowling nipples seen in England's South. He is also an unusually violent ball shiner. His throwing style is more like that of the local butcher playing a club game that a professional athlete. He doesn't stop balls in the field as much as runs along beside them. His shirt is often untucked. He is an older player who has earned his position through deeds. His running often makes it look like his shoulders are too big for him to stay upright. And he bats like a proper 1930s tailender.
Pankaj is part of a small club of cricketers who have been stumped facing a seamer with the keeper standing back. It happened because he wanted to sledge Ajit Agarkar for bouncing him. You have to commend him for standing up for himself against a senior player like Agarkar. You have to laugh at him for getting stumped while he did it.
When Pankaj was asked what he would do with a million dollars, he said he would build schools, improve infrastructure and find jobs for his village. In almost every way he is a thoroughly lovable big lump of lad who has spent years trying to make it.
There is brief excitement in the eyes of Pankaj as he sees another ball take the outside of Cook's bat. The ball flies in the air towards a well set double gully trap. Had Mohammed Shami bowled the ball, it could have probably nestled into the hands of one of them. But this is Pankaj, so the excitement quickly becomes pain, then acceptance.
For a few seconds, he stares in the direction of the ball, even though it has been returned. He waits for Dhoni to say something, but nothing comes. Then he turns, a turn so heavy you can hear it from 100 metres away, and he gingerly walks back to the umpire, Rod Tucker, who is smiling sympathetically. It is the smile of a man who spent 103 first-class matches bowling luckless spells. Tucker says something and gives his cap back.
Pankaj walks alone towards the boundary. None of his team mates go over, the time for encouragement has passed. They know he has probably bowled his last ball this match, and possibly the last of his entire Test career. He fields one more ball, and then walks off the ground to get some treatment. No one claps, no one pats him on the back, he just moves through the few spectators and support staff, three stairs at a time.
Just as he is about to disappear into the changeroom, he takes off his cap and slams it on his leg.
That is cricket.

Argentina defaults as debt talks break down

Finance minister Axel Kicillof said Argentina would not be held to ransom by bondholders demanding to be paid in full
Argentina's Economy Minister Axel Kicillof speaks to the media at a press conference at the Argentine Consulate in New York July 30, 2014.
Argentina's economy minister Axel Kicillof speaks to the media at a press conference in New York July 30, 2014. Photograph: CARLO ALLEGRI/REUTERS
Argentina has fallen into default for the second time since 2001 after last-minute talks with "vulture" bondholders in New York failed to produce a deal overnight.

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At a dramatic press conference in New York on Wednesday night, Argentinian finance minister Axel Kicillof declared that Argentina would not be held to ransom by the holdout bondholders, who are demanding to be paid in full on debt which the country defaulted on in 2001.
Kicillof said: "We're not going to sign an agreement that jeopardises the future of all Argentines. Argentines can remain calm because tomorrow will just be another day and the world will keep on spinning."
Shortly before the deadline, Daniel Pollack, the court-appointed mediator, confirmed that the talks had broken down. "Unfortunately, no agreement was reached and the Republic of Argentina will imminently be in default."
Earlier, the credit rating firm Standard & Poor's declared that Argentina was now in "selective default". The default comes two months after a US court ruled that Argentina must pay the holdout bondholders in full, saddling it with a bill of more than $1.5bn.
The vast majority (more than 90% of bondholders) agreed to restructure debts in 2005 and 2010, taking a big "haircut" – a reduction of more than 70% in the value of their investments in return for regular interest payments.
Argentina's last default, in late 2001, came after a major political and economic crisis; scores were killed in riots, and both the president and the economy minister resigned. But there was little sign of a panic in global financial markets this time, as the default was widely expected. However, it could add more pain for Argentinians, with the economy already in recession.
Pollack said: "The full consequences of default are not predictable, but they certainly are not positive."
The holdouts – branded "vulture funds" by Argentinian president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner – are US hedge funds spearheaded by the billionaire Paul Singer's NML Capital, an affiliate of Elliott Management, and Aurelius Capital Management.
Steve Ellis, portfolio manager at Fidelity emerging market debt fund, said: "We expect contagion to other markets to be fairly limited. This is a highly technical legal case and a selective default.
"Argentina was isolated from international capital markets for years so we don't expect the default to distort any global capital flows. However, there will be remaining risks around a longer term default which would have negative impacts on the Argentine economy. At this stage, the market will likely price in a delay of payments should the government continue to deposit coupon payments until they can reach a deal with the holdouts in 2015."

Intervention, evasion, destabilisation by Security Council members

Brahma Chellaney in The Hindu

If Libya, Syria and Iraq are coming undone and Ukraine has been gravely destabilised, it is the result of interventions by big powers that claim to be international law enforcers when, in reality, they are lawbreakers

Big powers over the years have targeted specific regimes by arming rebel groups with lethal weapons, thereby destabilising some states and contributing to the rise of dangerous extremists and terrorists. The destabilisation of Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and Libya, among other states, is a result of such continuing geopolitical games.
It is the local people who get killed, maimed and uprooted by the interventions of major powers and their regional proxies. Yet those who play such games assume a moral posture to rationalise their interventionist policies and evade responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Indeed, they paint their interference in the affairs of other sovereign states as aimed at fighting the “bad” guys.
Cold War echo

Take the blame game over the downing of Flight MH 17, which was shot down by a surface-to-air missile (SAM), allegedly fired by eastern Ukraine’s Russian-speaking separatists, a number of whom have clearly been trained and armed by Russia. Russia’s aid to the separatists and Washington’s security assistance to the government in Kiev, including providing vital intelligence and sending American military advisers to Ukraine, is redolent of the pattern that prevailed during the Cold War, when the two opposing blocs waged proxy battles in countries elsewhere.
Today, with the Ukrainian military shelling rebel-held cities and Russia massing heavy weapons and troops along the frontier, the crisis threatens to escalate to a direct U.S.-Russia confrontation, especially if Moscow directly intervenes in eastern Ukraine in response to the worsening humanitarian crisis there. The United Nations says the fighting in eastern Ukraine has uprooted more than 230,000 residents. Over 27,000 of them have taken sanctuary in Russia.
After the MH 17 crash, U.S. President Barack Obama was quick to hold Russia and its President, Vladimir Putin, guilty in the global court of opinion over the downing and to spotlight Russian aid to the separatists. Through sanctions and diplomacy, Mr. Obama has steadily ratcheted up pressure on Mr. Putin to stop assisting the rebels. Yet, Mr. Obama has had no compunction in gravely destabilising Syria through continuing covert aid to “moderate” militants there. The aid is being channelled through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the jihad-bankrolling oil sheikhdoms.
Regime-change strategy

Mr. Obama set out on the mission of regime change in Syria by seizing the opportunity that opened up in 2011, when popular protests broke out in some cities against President Bashar al-Assad’s autocratic rule. The detention and torture of a group of schoolchildren, who had been caught scribbling anti-government graffiti in the city of Deraa, led to protests and demands for political reforms and a series of events that rapidly triggered an armed insurrection with external assistance.
From bases in Turkey and Jordan, the rebels — with the clandestine assistance of the U.S., Britain and France — established a Free Syrian Army, launching attacks on government forces. Washington and its allies simultaneously mounted an intense information war demonising Mr. Assad and encouraging officers and soldiers to desert the Syrian military and join the Free Syrian Army.
It is clear three years later that their regime-change strategy has backfired: Not only has it failed to oust Mr. Assad, it has turned Syria into a failed state and led to the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — a brutal, medieval organisation seeking to establish a caliphate across the Middle East and beyond. With radical jihadists now dominating the scene, the Free Syrian Army has become a marginal force, despite the CIA continuing to train and arm its members in Jordan.
Had Mr. Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande not embarked on this strategy — which helped instil the spirit of jihad against the Assad regime and opened the gates to petrodollar-financed weapons to Syrian jihadists — would murderous Islamists be in control of much of northern Syria today? It was this control that served as the staging ground for the rapid advance of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant into Iraq. This group now is in a position to potentially use water as a weapon through its control of the upstream areas along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers in Syria and Iraq, including important dams.
By inadvertently turning Syria into another Afghanistan — and a threat to regional and international security — the interveners failed to heed the lessons from the CIA’s funnelling of arms to the Afghan mujahideen (or self-proclaimed “holy warriors” of Islam) in the 1980s. The funnelling of arms — partly financed by Saudi Arabia and some other oil sheikhdoms — was a multibillion-dollar operation against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan that gave rise to al-Qaeda and monsters like Osama bin Laden and Mullah Mohammad Omar, chief of the Taliban who remains holed up in Pakistan. It ranked as the largest covert operation in the CIA’s history.
 Now, consider a different case where a regime-change strategy spearheaded by the U.S., Britain and France succeeded — Libya. The ouster of Col. Muammar Qadhafi’s government through U.S.-led aerial bombardment in 2011, however, ended up fomenting endless conflict, bloodletting and chaos in Libya.
The virtual crumbling of the Libyan state, more ominously, has had major international implications — from the cross-border leakage of shoulder-fired SAMs from the Qadhafi-built arsenal, including to Syrian jihadists, to the flow of other Libyan weapons to al-Qaeda-linked groups in the arid lands near the Sahara desert known as the Sahel region. Nigeria’s Boko Haram extremists have also tapped the Libyan arms bazaar.
The weapons that Qatar and, on a smaller scale, the United Arab Emirates shipped to Libyan rebels with U.S. approval, including machine guns, automatic rifles and ammunition, have not only destabilised Libya but also undermined security in Mali, Niger and Chad. These weapons had been handed out like candy to foment the uprising against Qadhafi.
There cannot be better proof of how the toppling of Qadhafi has boomeranged than the fact that the U.S., whose ambassador was killed in a 2012 militant attack in Benghazi, the supposed capital of the Libyan “revolution,” has now shut its embassy in Tripoli, citing increasing lawlessness. The predawn evacuation of its entire embassy staff to Tunisia, with U.S. warplanes providing air cover, represented a public admission of defeat.
The plain truth is that it is easier for outside forces to topple or undermine a regime than to build stability and security in the targeted country. With neighbourhoods becoming battlefields, Iraq, Syria and Libya are coming undone. Another disintegrating state is Afghanistan, where Mr. Obama is seeking to end the longest war in American history.
Marginalisation of U.N.

Such is the United Nations’ marginalisation in international relations that it is becoming irrelevant to the raging conflicts. To make matters worse, the U.N. Security Council’s five permanent members, although tasked by the U.N. Charter to preserve international peace and security, have helped spark or fuel regional conflicts and aided the rise of insurgent groups through their interventionist and arms-transfer policies. These five powers — all nuclear-armed — account for more than 80 per cent of the world’s official exports of conventional weapons and most of the unofficial transfers. Chinese arms, for example, have proliferated to a number of guerrilla groups active in Africa and Asia, including insurgents in India’s northeast.
The only mechanism to enforce international law is the Security Council. Yet, its permanent members have repeatedly demonstrated that great powers use, not respect, international law. They have a long history of ignoring international rules when these conflict with their plans. In other words, the international law enforcers are the leading lawbreakers.
Mr. Obama, in toppling Qadhafi through the use of air power, and Mr. Putin, in annexing Crimea, paradoxically cited the same moral principle that has no force in international law — “responsibility to protect.” Indeed, the transition from the 20th to the 21st centuries heralded the open flouting of international law, as represented by the bombing of Serbia, the separation of Kosovo from Serbia, and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Against this background, it is scarcely a surprise that, despite the continuing rhetoric of a rules-based international order, the world is witnessing the triumph of brute force in the 21st century.
If the Security Council is to act more responsibly, its permanent members must look honestly at what they are doing to undermine international peace and security. This can happen only if the Council’s permanent membership is enlarged and the veto power abolished to make decision-making in that body truly democratic.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

HSBC closes some Muslim groups' and individuals' accounts

HSBC bank has written to Finsbury Park Mosque and other Muslim organisations and individuals in the UK to tell them that their accounts will be closed.
The reason given in some cases was that to continue providing services would be outside the bank's "risk appetite".
The wife and teenage children of a man who runs a London based Islamic think-tank have also been contacted.
HSBC said decisions to close accounts were "absolutely not based on race or religion".
"We do not discuss relationships we may or may not have with a customer, nor confirm whether an individual or business is, or has been a customer.
"Discrimination against customers on grounds of race or religion is immoral, unacceptable and illegal, and HSBC has comprehensive rules and policies in place to ensure race or religion are never factors in banking decisions."
No chance

Finsbury Park Mosque in North London was written to by HSBC on 22 July.
The only reason given for the intention to close its account was that "the provision of banking services… now falls outside of our risk appetite".
In the letter, the bank notifies the treasurer of the mosque that it will close the account on 22 September.
Khalid Oumar, one of the trustees of the mosque, questioned the motives behind the letters.
"The letters that have been sent and the letters that we received do not give any reason why the accounts were closed in the first place," he said.
"That has led us to believe that the only reason this has happened is because of an Islamophobic campaign targeting Muslim charities in the UK."

The mosque's chairman Mohammed Kozbar told the BBC: "The bank didn't even contact us beforehand. Didn't give us a chance even to address [their] concerns.
"For us it is astonishing - we are a charity operating in the UK, all our operations are here in the UK and we don't transfer any money out of the UK. All our operations are funded from funds within the UK."
Until 2005, the mosque was run by Abu Hamza, who in May this year was convicted of terrorism offences in the United States.
"The positive work we have done since taking over over from Abu Hamza to change the image of the mosque, there is nothing really that can explain [HSBC's decision]," says Mr Kozbar.
"They have put us now in a very, very difficult situation - this is the only account we have."
Mr Kozbar says HSBC's decision could have negative repercussions for the bank.
"We are sure that our community will be frustrated, and might consider closing their accounts themselves with HSBC if the bank doesn't reopen our account, or at least give us an explanation."
Jeremy Corbyn, the local MP for Finsbury Park, says he has worked with the mosque ever since it was built.
"Over the past 10 years, it has developed into a superb example of a community mosque supporting local people and providing facilities for all faiths if they need it.
"I am shocked and appalled at the decision of HSBC."

Anas Al Tikriti was born in Baghdad, but has lived in the UK for several decades. His family has also received letters. He runs the Cordoba Foundation, a think tank on Islamic issues set up in 2005 in order to address, he says, the relationship between Europe and the Middle East.
He, his wife, his 16- and 12-year-old sons all received separate letters this week from HSBC informing them that their accounts would be closed in September. This time, no reason was given.
Mr Al Tikriti says he has banked with HSBC since the 1980s and has rarely been overdrawn.
"It is unsettling. I am not used to being addressed in those terms. It's like I have done something wrong. The involvement of my family disturbs me. Why the entire family?"
"I can only speculate - and I wish someone from the bank could explain [why the accounts were closed]. The organisations are mainly charities and the link is that many of them if not all of them are vocal on the issue of Palestine."
"It would be a great shame if that was true. As I'm left to speculate, that's the only reason I can come to."
His think tank, the Cordoba Foundation, which also banks with HSBC, was also told that its account will close, with an almost identical letter to that sent to the Finsbury Park Mosque, and dated the same day.
'Alternative arrangements'

Ummah Welfare trust, based in Bolton, has distributed £70m to projects in 20 countries. It has had a presence in Gaza for 10 years.
In a letter, also dated 22 July, HSBC gave Ummah the same reason for closing its account that it had given to the Finsbury Park Mosque - that "provision of banking services now falls outside our risk appetite".
It then gave the charity two months' notice of its decision to close the trust's accounts.
"You will need to make alternative banking arrangements, as we are not prepared to open another account for you," the letter continues.
Mohammed Ahmad, who runs Ummah, says it is a dream customer for a bank and always in credit.
He asked HSBC in a meeting why the accounts were closing, but says the bank's representative gave them no answer.
Mr Ahmad says that they "have always tried to work within a legal framework and accommodate banks, if, for example, there was an issue with sanctions".
Mr Ahmad says he thinks HSBC has made its decision because of its work in Gaza, where he says Ummah provides "ambulances, food aid, medical aid, and grants."
"We make sure we go out of the way to work with organisations that are non-partisan. What we do now is we do a check on Thomson Reuters and make sure that there is no link whatsoever with blacklisted organisations. We don't want to damage our relief efforts. We have tried our best to be non-partisan as much as possible."
A government official the BBC spoke to said they did not believe this was the result of government action but reflected a decision the bank had taken itself based on its own risk analysis.
In December 2012, HSBC had to pay US authorities $1.9bn (£1.2bn) in a settlement over money laundering, the largest paid in such a case. It was alleged to have helped launder money belonging to drug cartels and states under US sanctions.
In August last year, it was reported that HSBC asked more than 40 embassies, consulates and High Commissions in the UK to close their accounts. At the time, the bank said "HSBC has been applying a rolling programme of "five filter" assessments to all its businesses since May 2011, and our services for embassies are no exception."
The Charities Commission has confirmed that it is not investigating any of the organisations involved and says that if the charities don't have a relationship with bank it could harm public trust in their work.

The rich want us to believe their wealth is good for us all

As the justifications for gross inequality collapse, only the Green party is brave enough to take on the billionaires’ boot boys
robin hood Campaigners get their message across in London.
‘However grotesque inequality becomes, political norms shift to defend it.’ Tax campaigners in London last year. Photograph: David Sandison

When inequality reaches extreme and destructive levels, most governments seek not to confront it but to accommodate it. Wherever wealth is absurdly concentrated, new laws arise to protect it.
In Britain, for example, successive governments have privatised any public asset that excites corporate greed. They have cut taxes on capital and high incomes. They have legalised new forms of tax avoidance. They have delivered exotic gifts such as subsidised shotgun licences and the doubling of state support for grouse moors. And they have dug a legal moat around the charmed circle, criminalising, for example, the squatting of empty buildings and most forms of peaceful protest. However grotesque inequality becomes, however closely the accumulation of inordinate wealth resembles legalised theft, political norms shift to defend it.
None of this should surprise you. The richer the elite becomes, and the more it has to lose, the greater the effort it makes to capture public discourse and the political system. It scarcely bothers to disguise its wholesale purchase of political parties, by means of an utterly corrupt and corrupting funding system. You can feel its grip not only on policy but also on the choice of parliamentary candidates and appointments to the cabinet. The very rich want people like themselves in power, which is why we have a government of millionaires.
But that describes only one corner of their influence. They fund lobby groups, thinktanks and economists to devise ever more elaborate justifications for their seizure of the nation’s wealth. These justifications are then amplified by the newspapers and broadcasters owned by the same elite.

Among the many good points Thomas Piketty makes in Capital in the Twenty First Century – his world-changing but surprisingly mild book – is that extreme inequality can be sustained politically only through an “apparatus of justification”. If voters can be persuaded that insane levels of inequality are sane, reasonable and even necessary, then the concentration of income can keep growing. If they can’t, then either states are forced to act, or revolutions happen.
For the notion that inequalities must be justified sits at the heart of democracy. It is possible to accept that some can have much more than others if one of two conditions are met: either that they reached this position through the exercise of their unique and remarkable talent; or that this inequality is good for everyone. So the network of thinktanks, economists and tame journalists must make these justifications plausible.
It’s a tough job. If wages reflect merit, why do they seem so arbitrary? Are the richest executives 50 or 100 times better at their jobs than their predecessors were in 1980? Are they 20 times more skilled and educated than the people immediately below them, even though they went to the same business schools? Are US executives several times as creative and dynamic as those in Germany? If so, why are their results so unremarkable?
It is, of course, all rubbish. What we see is not meritocracy at work at all, but a wealth grab by a nepotistic executive class that sets its own salaries, tests credulity with its ridiculous demands, and discovers that credulity is an amenable customer. They must marvel at how they get away with it.
Moreover, as education and even (in the age of the intern) work becomes more expensive, the opportunities to enter the grabbers’ class diminish. The nations that pay the highest top salaries, such as the US and Britain, are also among the least socially mobile. Here, you inherit not only wealth but also opportunity.
Aha, they say, but extreme wealth is good for all of us. All will be uplifted by their god’s invisible hand. Their creed is based on the Kuznets curve, the graph that appears to show that inequality automatically declines as capitalism advances, spreading wealth from the elite to the rest.
When Piketty took the trouble to update the curve, which was first proposed in 1955, he discovered that the redistribution it documented was an artefact of the peculiar circumstances of its time. Since then, the concentration of wealth has reasserted itself with a vengeance. The reduction in inequality by 1955 was not an automatic and inherent feature of capitalism, but the result of two world wars, a great depression and the fierce response of governments to those disruptions.
For example, the top federal income tax rate in the US rose from 25% in 1932 to 94% in 1944. The average top rate throughout the years 1932 to 1980 was 81%. In the 1940s, the British government imposed a top income tax of 98%. The invisible hand? Hahaha. As these taxes were slashed by Reagan, Thatcher and the rest, inequality boomed once more, and is exploding today. This is why the neoliberals hate Piketty with such passion and poison: he has destroyed with data the two great arguments with which the apparatus of justification seeks to excuse the inexcusable.
So here we have a perfect opportunity for progressive parties: the moral and ideological collapse of the system of thought to which they were previously in thrall. What do they do? Avoid the opportunity like diphtheria. Cowed by the infrastructure of purchased argument, Labour fiddles and dithers.
But there is another party, which seems to have discovered the fire and passion that moved Labour so long ago: the Greens. Last week they revealed that their manifesto for the general election will propose a living wage, the renationalisation of the railways, a maximum pay ratio (no executive should receive more than 10 times the salary of the lowest-paid worker) and, at the heart of their reforms, a wealth tax of the kind Piketty recommends.
Yes, it raises plenty of questions, but none of them are unanswerable – especially if this is seen as one step towards the ideal position: a global wealth tax, that treats capital equally, wherever it might lodge. Rough as this proposal is, it will start to challenge the political consensus and draw people who thought they had nowhere to turn. Expect the billionaires’ boot boys to start screaming, once they absorb the implications. And take their boos and jeers as confirmation that it’s on to something. You wanted a progressive alternative? You’ve got it.

Monday, 28 July 2014

When it comes to our welfare system, we’ve lost the plot

As Britain follows the US in tearing up its safety net, the story of social security needs to be retold from the very beginning
protest benefits street
A protest outside the London offices of Love Productions, which made the TV programme Benefits Street. Photograph: Graham Turner for the Guardian

The rip-roaringly successful 4’s Benefits Street, on Channel 4, is being followed up by Immigrant Street. This a year after the same station’s Benefits Britain 1949 – to middle England’s delight – subjected contemporary welfare claimants to the social security rules of the ration-book years, as applied by real-life bullying bureaucrats with real jobcentre experience. Meanwhile, Channel 5 has developed its own pauper-baiting programme,On Benefits & Proud, and its cousin, Gypsies On Benefits & Proud.
The boom in poverty porn suggests that the left is getting thrashed on social security, and the polling confirms this. There is still support for the general principle of a safety net and a ladder of opportunity, but turn to the practicalities of particular benefits and suspicions about freeloaders rise as jealousies break out in every direction. Listening to voices from across Britain for my book Hard Times, I found not only workers complaining about the unemployed getting an easy ride, but also jobless people grumbling that the low-paid got more help than them nowadays, not to mention striking mutual antipathy between recipients of different benefits.
To see where this debate could lead, glance across the Atlantic. Four decades after Ronald Reagan invoked the “welfare queen”, the nearest thing America had to income support is long abolished. There is charity, and sometimes state and local relief, but many a chronic health condition goes untreated, and penury abounds. The right, however, still refuses to relent. Paul Ryan, the Republican pick for vice-president in 2012, said about Medicaid and food stamps that year: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people into lives of dependency and complacency.” It is remarkable that such language is not being used about cash payments that could be misspent but about programmes to provide food and medicine to poor people in the world’s richest economy.
As the coalition freezes, cuts and applies punitive “sanctions”, we’re heading the same way faster than anyone would have thought possible a few years ago. The only chance of arresting the drift is somehow resetting the whole discussion from first principles.
Benefits are paid out on many different bases around the world. In France, there is still a meaningful connection between earnings, social contributions paid in, and benefit paid out. In parts of northern Europe, unions retain a hand in collecting premiums and administering payments, forging a link between benefits and a concrete institution less remote and alien than “the welfare state”. In New Zealand, a flat-rate pension – available to all seniors, on the strength of residency alone – represents an entirely different way of thinking about benefits, more related to universal rights.
No real-world system ever fits any theory perfectly. Even the fondly remembered Beveridge settlement of the 1940s was riddled with compromise. A stern Victorian, William Beveridge himself was serious about social insurance, properly funded by contributions that built up over time. But Attlee was rightly concerned about the pressing needs of the already elderly, who had never had a chance to pay in, so it was operated as pay-as-you-go from the off. There was also – as there almost always has to be – a means-tested safety net to catch those who would otherwise sink, something that compromised the ideal of “earned” benefits.
Underlying the unloved mosaic of contemporary British benefits lurks a mishmash of half-forgotten principles. In the field of disability alone, there are income top-ups that embody poverty relief, allowances based on contribution records, and other benefits contingent on nothing but health, which reflect ideas about economic rights – even if it does not feel that way as the coalition hacks them back. But through the muddle, there are some definite trends. The proportion of non-pensioner benefits linked to contributions in the UK has dropped by around two-thirds since the 1970s, with means-testing filling the gap, turning welfare payment into the sort of residual function Richard Titmuss was thinking of when he warned that services for the poor would become poor services.
There will, then, always be fixes and workarounds. The important thing is that citizens should be able tell a rough story about how the system works. That sense of a story is what we have lost, and must now restore. But how?
The Institute of Public Policy’s Condition of Britain report suggests replacing some ill-understood cash benefits with public services, particularly in childcare, where – it says – state nurseries would not only be more loved, but also more efficient than under today’s morass of subsidies. Building social houses instead of writing cheques to landlords for owning scarce private homes likewise has commonsensical appeal. The IPPR also proposes refreshing the contributory link by turning the national insurance fund into the sort of independent body Beveridge envisaged, while also increasing jobseeker’s allowance for unemployed workers who have previously paid in.
There would need to be adjustments to “credit in” parents and carers who can’t work and also, arguably, the increasing band whose temporary, part-time or zero-hours jobs make for patchy careers. This leads some radical voices, such as left-leaning Compass, to call for a citizen’s income, paid to all and clawed back through taxes from those who don’t need it. A payment for everybody could hardly be painted as the preserve of the scrounger, and the proposal would deal – at root – with the financial anxiety of our times.
I’ve got my doubts about affordability, and also the pitch to voters often none too keen on rights. But what I admire here is Compass’s willingness to pose the big questions. You might prefer the story about rights to social security, or you might prefer a yarn about the duty to contribute to social insurance. Either, I’d say, is preferable to today’s tragic tale of welfare’s decline.

How we misunderstand risk in sport

Aggression, defence, success, failure, innovation - they are all about our willingness to take risks and how we judge them
Ed Smith in Cricinfo 
July 28, 2014

Same risk, different outcome: when a batsman goes after a bowler, he could end up being dismissed or hitting a six © Getty Images

The World Bank recently asked me to give a speech at a forum in London called "Understanding Risk". Initiall, I was unsure how I could approach the subject. How could I, an ex-sportsman turned writer, address financial experts on the question of risk?
On reflection, I realised there is another profession, followed around the world and relentlessly scrutinised, that relies almost entirely on the assessment of risk. Without risk, there can be no reward. Without risk, there are no triumphs. Without risk, there can be no progress.
And yet this entire profession, this whole sphere of human endeavour, doesn't really understand risk at all. It uses the term sloppily, even incorrectly. It criticises good risks and celebrates bad risks. It cannot distinguish between probabilities and outcomes.
It has changed its approach to risk, swapping one flawed approach for the opposite mistake. In the old amateur days, when it was run and managed like an old boys' club, there was little or no calculation of risk - merely unscientific anecdotes and old wives' tales. But the brave new dawn of social science didn't prove any better. In fact, it might be even worse. People put too much faith in maths, metrics and quantification. It has lurched from old boy's network to a pseudo-science - without pausing en route where it ought permanently to reside: with the acknowledgment that risk requires subjective but expert judgement. There is no perfect formula. If there was, everyone with a brain would succeed.
The sphere I describe, of course, is not finance or banking but professional sport. Sporting strategy - sometimes analytical and planned, sometimes instant and intuitive - always revolves around the assessment of risk. Taking risks is what sportsmen do for a living. And yet the analysis of risk does not match this practical reality. We usually talk in clichés not truths, often criticising good risks and praising bad risk-taking.
Here are four ways the sports world often misinterprets risk.

Risk is everywhere

In cricket, every attacking shot played by a batsman carries an element of risk, no matter how small. Stop playing shots and you cannot score runs. "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take," as Wayne Gretzky, the greatest ice hockey player of all time, put it.
And it is amazing when you stop playing attacking shots how much better bowlers bowl. Effective risk-taking has an intimidatory effect. Total risk-aversion the opposite: it emboldens your opponent, making him feel safe and relaxed.
In football, when a midfield player advances up the pitch, he is trying to orchestrate a goal while also reducing his own team's defensive protection. In risking creating a goal, he increases the risk of conceding one. Defenders, too, constantly weigh risks. Pressing the opposition, trying to get the ball back from them, is a risk. In moving up the pitch without possession, you create space behind you - if they are good enough to keep the ball and get past you.
But the alternative - safety-first defending - brings risks of another kind. If you never press, and always retreat into the safety of deep defensive organisation, then you rarely regain the ball. You dig your own trench, unable to threaten or frighten the opposition, merely sitting there waiting for the next wave of attack.
Tennis is all about risk. With your groundstrokes, if you are determined never to lose a point by hitting the ball long, not even once, then sadly you won't play with enough depth to make life difficult for your opponent. You will make zero errors and still lose.
And when it's your turn to return, if you never run round your backhand in the hope of hitting a forehand winner, then you will allow your opponent to settle into a comfortable serving rhythm. In the pursuit of good returning, you have to risk getting aced. You have to risk failure in the short term to give yourself a chance in the long term. You have to dare to be great.

Being right is not the same thing as events turning out well

You can be right and fail. You can be wrong and succeed.
Sport is about problem-solving. And the best way to discover new, better methods is to allow people to experiment through trial and error. Don't see what everyone else is doing and copy it. Find a better way
Sport rarely allows for this. We say that winning "justified the decision", a classic failure to distinguish between ex ante and ex poste thinking. Instead, the real question should be: would I do the same thing again, given the information I had at the time? Coaches and captains often make the right calls and lose. And they often make the wrong calls and win. It is stupid to judge a man's judgement on a sample size of one event.
The same point applies to risks taken by players. An unthinking tribal fan will shout "hero" when a risk-taking batsman hits a six, then scream "idiot" when the same shot ends up in a fielder's hands.
What a champion to take on the bowler! What a fool to take such a risk! The inconsistency here is not the batsman's, it is the spectator's. Coward/hero, fool/champion, disgrace/legend. The same risk can lead to either assessment.

Many crucial risks are invisible 

There are risks that no one sees that still have to be taken. Critics delude themselves that the only form of bravery in sport is guts and determination. At least as important is nerve, or, put differently, the capacity to endure risk imperceptibly.
When I was commentating with Sourav Ganguly at Lord's last week, he told me that Virender Sehwag used to shout, "He missed a four!" while he was in the dressing room watching team-mates batting. Ganguly quite rightly added that missing an opportunity to do something good is just as much of a mistake as making a visible error.
Many teams imperceptibly yield an advantage through timidity, fearfulness, and anxiety about standing out for the wrong reasons - an advantage they never subsequently reverse.
During the last Ashes series, I used this column to develop the metaphor of looking at sport as an old-fashioned battlefield. As the front lines engage and each army tries to advance, the direction of travel will be determined by tiny acts of skill and bravery - and equally imperceptible acts of risk aversion.
Somewhere on the front line, an infantryman inches a foot closer to his ally, hiding his own shield slightly behind his friend's. Hence one man becomes fractionally safer - but if the action is repeated a thousand times, the front line becomes significantly narrower and weaker as a whole. No one individual can be singled out as a hopeless failure. But the group suffers a collective diminution.
So it is in sport. When a batsman fails to hit a half-volley for four because he is too cautious, an opportunity is wasted to exploit an advantage offered to his team.
We talk a great deal about momentum, but not enough about how momentum is created. Once the whole army is retreating, even the bravest soldiers can fail to hold the line. We talk of courage when the tide has already turned. So in place of the usual clichés, "out-fought", "out-toughed", "out-hungered", I have a simpler word: outplayed. Or, even better, "quietly, perhaps indiscernibly, defeated by superior risk-taking".

The essential risk of being prepared to look silly

This is how sport moves forward. In 1968, a professional athlete had a crazy idea. Madder still, he had this idea just before the tournament event of his life. He wanted to rip up the coaching manual and do it all his own way. His coaches told him to forget about it, to stick with the old way of doing things, not to rock the boat.
He ignored them. He was a high-jumper, and he instinctively wanted to go over the bar head first, back down - not, as everyone else did, leg first, face down. At the 1968 Mexico Olympics, despite everyone telling him he was mad, he went ahead with his revolutionary technique. And how did it work out? He won a gold medal and set a new world record. He was called Dick Fosbury and he'd just invented the Fosbury Flop.
Sport is about problem-solving. A challenge is set: kick the ball into the net; hit the ball over the boundary; jump over the bar. From then on, solutions evolve, sometimes deliberately, sometimes by accident. And the best way to discover new, better methods is to allow people to experiment through trial and error. Don't see what everyone else is doing and copy it. Find a better way.
The left-field question is the one to ask. Why shouldn't I jump over the high-jump bar head first? Why shouldn't I aim my sweep shot towards off side where there aren't any fielders (the reverse sweep, the switch hit)?
Sport moves forward when it is irreverent, resistant to authority. The greatest cricketer of all time, Don Bradman, used a technique that no one has dared to try out a second time. His bat swing started way out to the side, rather than as a straight pendulum line from behind him.
Let me repeat. The method that made Bradman one and a half times better than the second-best player was consigned to the rubbish bin of sporting ideas. Bradman was prepared to look stupid by risking a unique rather than textbook technique. Others have been unwilling or unable to follow.
Bradman, however, benefited from one huge slice of luck. He escaped the greatest risk that can befall any genius: formal education. He learnt to bat on his own, using the empirical method, without a coaching manual. As a child he would repeatedly hit a golf ball against the curved brick base of his family's water tank.
Here is a startling thought. How many Bradmans were persuaded to try the usual technique? How many Fosburys were talked out of taking a chance?
In the course of trying to be different and better, you have to bear the risk of being different and worse.