A place of politics, culture (!!) & random subjects from Airstrip One. Noel hopes it will be of interest and/or use to all sorts of voyagers in cyberspace!

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The Voice Of 40-Something Cynical Optimism!

Friday, November 17, 2006

Moving Up In The Blogging World?

I've gone with Beta Blogger, so everything is new and shiny. I've also had to move my blogging address slightly to
Simply click on there and the same old sort of stuff I go on about will appear as if by magic!

Thursday, November 16, 2006


That should get a few hits!

Monday, October 23, 2006

By way of explanation

I haven't done much with my blog through October. There are some reasons for this. I was pretty poorly towards the start of the month. Basically I caught whatever was going round and I had a week in bed. Then this week I have been out and about (drinks with friends in Ye Olde Londone Citye Centre; went to my first meeting of West Hampstead Book Club; and went to the cinema to see the v.good Children of Men- still from film above). I was going to do some blogging last night but my broadband connection was down for some reason. I'm back on nights this week, so I won't have much time this week to post stuff. However, I had to type something this morning just in case anyone thought I was dead or giving up the blogging game.

As I said in a recent post, politics has an air of the same old, same old for me at the moment. I realise that I will have to sit down and just type about the reasons for this at some point. However, the inspiration is not there are the moment. It will return, I am sure, but my blogging muse is currently AWOL.

PS I recently saw this on the Net. With the figure I got, you can see why the loss of my broadband connection last night left me scratching my head...

I am nerdier than 9% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Down with fakes!

"We did what we had to do and that's why we didn't survive, only the fakes survive." -John Lydon on The Sex Pistols.

It is all too easy for David Cameron at the moment. He says that he is reforming the Conservative Party in a modernising way, although he keeps quiet about what that means in policy terms. There are mumblings from the Munster Family wing of the Cons and their cheerleaders in the press, but if DC is really to persuade the liberal middle classes that the Cons are the lot for them at the next General Election he will have to take on his internal opponents, in the same way that Neil Kinnock did with Derek Hatton, Arthur Scargill et al in 1985. As that was two years into Kinnock's leadership, expect fireworks at next year's Tory Conference. The trouble Cameron also has is that most Con Party members are 110% sure that they only have to keep saying the things they have been saying since Mrs. Thatcher became leader over 30 years back to win the next General Election. Any party which had seen two crushing General Election defeats and then elected a complete no-hoper like Iain Duncan Smith, simply because he was anti-EU (nothing wrong with being anti-EU, I hasten to add) is still in a state of denial. Even now Cameron and his cronies use the most abused phrase in British politics "we have learnt lessons" (without spelling out what they are), which suggests that it is not only the rank-and-file which is in denial about the Cons' political future.

I was reading the Guardian's G2 section on Friday gone when I came across two articles, which seemed to have very little in common, apart from being good, and being condemnations of the sort of fakery in modern Britain which gets me worked up no end. The first is about the great man Dave Cameron and his ilk by a thinking Tory (not a "thinking Thatcherite", I hasten to add- that's an oxymoron for morons), George Walden. I hope he isn't right about the English being naturally deferential- we might as all give up now if that is true- but Walden is right about how the media encourages all this fakery wrapped in the warm odour of "sincerity".

I'm a fake, vote for me
Our present prime minister is a posh man pretending to be common. Our next prime minister may well be a posh man pretending to be common. Why do we love being patronised?
George Walden, The Guardian, Friday September 22, 2006

Britain is governed by an oligarchy of professional egalitarians, many of them from privileged backgrounds, whose power and wealth increasingly depend on the more or less cynical exploitation of populism in politics, the media and the arts. While in power, the Conservative party - lamenting low educational standards and intoning sombrely about family values - had been happy to endorse the increased commercialisation of television. The profits would go largely to friends of the party, while, for reasons too obvious to recite, their own children would be spared much of the cultural squalor that crudely populist television programmes would encourage.

Even so, who would have predicted that an Etonian of three years' parliamentary standing (whose experience of life had been predominantly as a PR executive for a TV company notorious for its low standards) would be elected leader of the Conservative party? That person would, until recently, have been denounced as a cynic. And if they had, furthermore, suggested that one of the first things a future contender for the Tory leadership would do would be to share with us the contents of his iPod and enthuse about his favourite single, they would have been laughed off as a hopeless pessimist.

Reality has, in fact, turned out to be a caricature. For the first time in our history, both major political parties are now led by what are inverted elites: well-born, privately educated men who vie with one another in affecting populist attitudes. Being from a superior social caste to Blair, it is in the logic of the new elites that Cameron should stoop lower, and so he does. A trivial example is their choice of records on Desert Island Discs: whereas Blair included three classical recordings in his choices, Cameron trumped him by having none at all.

Cameron is, to some extent, the political expression of the Princess Diana phenomenon. Diana was the patron saint of these new elites, and Cameron has clearly learned a lot from her. They not only look a little alike (it seems to me) but, it has been written, may be distantly related. She spooned with the masses and so does he. Both are upper-class figures who nevertheless contrive to lay claim to victim status: Diana exploited her difficulties with the royal family to gain public sympathy, and Cameron, somewhat distastefully, makes political play with his disabled son.

The politics of sentiment increasingly dominate public discussion, and sentimentality tinged with cynicism was what Diana was about. The same is true of Cameron's social politics. The cant of the new elites emerges with numbing shamelessness in his public declarations. Recently the one-time PR man for ruthlessly profitable trash TV made a heartfelt speech in which he said that money wasn't everything, and that the quality of our culture mattered. In his more mawkish mode it is possible to discern in the Tory leader's political pitch a faint echo of Diana's Christ-like affectations. With her, it was a scrupulously choreographed contact with people sick with Aids. With Cameron, it is an ostentatious tolerance of the lower orders: suffer the hoodies and the hoodlums to come unto me.

Socially and politically, the consequence (and, subconsciously perhaps, the intention) of this de haut en bas smarminess towards the masses is the maintenance of the old order in modern guise. Naturally, Cameron would deny this, insisting that he is sincere in everything he says and does. But then so does Blair and so would Diana. All three strike me as instances of a contemporary phenomenon by which a person's feelings about him or herself become more important than their relationship with reality. To that extent, as a sagacious Princeton professor, Harry G Frankfurt, has recently pointed out, "sincerity itself is bullshit".

The Blair-Cameron continuum does not surprise me. Populism in Britain is systemic, involving a tacit complicity between left and right. By this I mean that the consequences of egalitarianism and the free market could, in practice, be remarkably similar, and that the main victims in both cases are likely to be at the lower end of society. For all their protestations to the contrary, neither right nor left really believe in meritocracy. At heart the left retains a gut opposition to selection in any form, while the right is in favour of competition everywhere except where it impinges on the educational and social privileges of the right itself, its sons and its daughters. But a situation in which talent finds no way forward while an elite of populist mediocrities holds power in field after field will, in the long term, prove damaging to the country.

Recently, the London School of Economics produced an international study showing that Britain is not only the least meritocratic country in the western world, but that in the past 30 years we have actually gone backwards. Another study, this time by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, has confirmed that, while our independent schools are of the highest standards, in no other country is there such a gulf in achievement between state and private schools. The bigger the gap, the greater the need to pretend it is not there. Hence the English art of condescension in its contemporary form. Blair's posturing helped set the tone for the new elites and, as we have seen, the style is catching.

Our increasingly populist media - which, like Cameron, insists that class is a thing of the past - is itself increasingly run by journalists whose backgrounds can be traced to the middle or upper-middle classes and to independent schools. The facts are there, in a recent study by the Sutton Trust, showing that more than half of the most senior journalists in the land came from independent schools, which account for 7% of the country's pupils. This, too, represents a deterioration of the position a few decades ago. It is in the logic of what I call an ultra-democracy in thrall to the new elites that the more privileged the power-holders in the media, the greater the quotient of populist ingratiation and we are certainly seeing plenty of that.

Five years ago, immigration was not yet the vastly important subject it has since become. From every point of view, the new elites have reason to welcome what has happened. Whatever its consequences for the country, for them, mass immigration is an unqualified boon. It is not just the low wages and household help that benefit well-to-do people such as themselves. Here are millions of new clients for their condescension, in the true meaning of the term: lowering yourself to the level of people you see as inferior, the better to ingratiate yourself with them. The purpose is to sell them your populist politics or dud culture, while burnishing your humanitarian image. We must look forward to the time when able and independent-minded immigrants at all levels of society react against the patronage of the new elites who, morally, culturally and intellectually, are so frequently beneath them.

One of the more predictable habits of the new elites is to dismiss all criticism of the country in which they and their children flourish as doom-mongering or unpatriotic. Such a riposte is of little consequence: elites have always sought to jolly the populace along, dissuading them from untoward reflection and analysis, and have always played the patriotic card. For some time I thought I discerned a diminishing tendency, even among politicians, to take the populist whip and that it was only a matter of time before the posturings of our new elites were laughed to scorn. There must be a limit to the amount of patronising a free people can take from its leaders, assuming it wants to be truly free.

Watching a Tory leader pedalling to the House of Commons followed by a chauffeur-driven Lexus carrying a clean shirt and shoes, like some bicycling Bertie Wooster with his Jeeves in motorised attendance, I am not so sure. Something in the English mind makes it possible for the farce to be accepted. And when in his populist arrogance our would-be prime minister exposes himself to a television interview in which he is asked whether as a teenager he had masturbated over an image of Margaret Thatcher, an observer might have thought that he would be seen as having gone beyond the bounds of the acceptable in the eyes of his colleagues, many of them former devotees of Saint Margaret.

But our observer would be wrong. What matters for the new elites is not loyalty, principle or the crumbs of decency, but personal success, even if it involves the debasement of everything the Conservative party is supposed to stand for. In Tory eyes only two things mattered about the incident and their strategists will not have missed them: Jonathan Ross earns £8m a year because he is a smart fellow and the public love him, and when he succumbed to the temptation to twit Cameron with a pitifully witless joke, a mere handful of people rang the BBC to complain.

To me it seems clear beyond doubt that Cameron will become prime minister after the next election, even in a hung parliament. If so, it would be the biggest triumph of our new elites since the apotheosis of Diana. Such a result would also confirm one of our least admirable national characteristics: the irresistible English urge to deference, in this case deference towards the privileged and well-to-do masquerading as themselves.

© 2006 George Walden. Extracted from New Elites: A Career in the Masses, published by Gibson Square on September 29. To order a copy for £9.99 with free UK p&p go to or call 0870 836 0875.

You can see Dave Cameron in a gastropub, can't you? You can see him launching the Cons next General Election campaign in one, trying to make bonhomie conversation with some miserable old bloke, while quaffing a glass of beer he normally wouldn't touch with the proverbial bargepole. As I've ranted previously, I have no objection to serving food in pubs- anything tasty and filling which soaks up the booze should be encouraged. However, gastropubs should be avoided if at all possible, as most are as fake as Mr DC himself.

Hunks of this, rumps of that ...
Seared scallops with thyme butter and parsnip chips? Pistachios washed down by Staropramen? Laura Barton is tired of gastropubs - and yearns for a shabby old boozer where dining means crisps
The Guardian, Friday September 22, 2006

Gastropub. Three syllables that instill an oily dread into my heart. It is not the word itself, of course, more the fact that, were there such a thing as a linguistic gastropub menu, it would probably find itself described as a duo of pub and gastronomy served on a bed of wild roquette with a plum confit and red wine reduction.

"Gastropub" was coined (not fricasseed or flash-fried or muddled) in 1991 by David Eyre and Mike Belben, proprietors of the Eagle, in Clerkenwell, London, which was among the first public houses to seize upon the remarkable notion of serving food alongside its ale that extended beyond a listless bag of pork scratchings or a pickled egg. Fifteen years on, it is hard to believe that before 1991, the pinnacle of pub fayre was a pre-cooked chicken and mushroom pie with a mountain of oven chips and an iceberg garnish consumed at a Harvester or a Beefeater while the children amused themselves outside in the kiddies' playground. So when the Eagle opened its doors, in a flurry of caldo verde and sea bream, it was indeed a glorious day for Britain.

But now they are everywhere. Everywhere! They are breeding. This month saw the launch of the Michelin Eating Out In Pubs 2007 guide, and among its 559 entries, there were 48 gastropubs in London alone. (It is the gastropub's cutting-edge cuisine that separates it from, say, genuine, ye olde food-serving taverns.) "The gastropub phenomenon is showing no signs of slowing down," says Derek Bulmer, the guide's editor. "We excluded more than 500 pubs from the guide this year."
Gordon Ramsay, meanwhile, has announced his intention to enter the gastropub trade with the Narrow Street Kitchen in Limehouse. More gastropubs? This seems to me a bleak, bleak future, for as the years have rolled by I have rather had my fill of herbed polenta and parmesan shavings, and after considerable rumination I have reached this conclusion: I loathe gastropubs and all who sail in them.

As the Eagle is adjacent to Guardian HQ, I would do well not to criticise it lest they pelt me with pane rustica as I stroll to the bus stop. And to be honest, I do, hand on heart, like the Eagle, as indeed I like an array of other gastropubs the length and breadth of the British Isles. It is, after all, hard to object to nice food and an agreeable selection of ales. And I eat in them often enough, of course; just last night, purely in the interests of investigative journalism, I found myself in a Hackney gastropub sampling seared scallops with thyme butter and parsnip chips (reader, I felt besmirched), but increasingly I find they instill in me the same lacklustre despondency as dining at a Little Chef, only without those amusingly slurpy milkshakes or the promise of a lollipop at the end.

I believe the reason is this: so popular have the original gastropubs been that the new batch now upon us seems to have been created by following some fail-safe gastropub blueprint downloaded off the internet. There is something achingly wearisome about walking through a hostelry door and finding one's eyes skating over the same brown leather sofas (low, sprawling, slightly scuffed) the same rustic tables (one leg charmingly stabilised with a folded-up napkin) the same beer selection (Staropramen, Staropramen, Staropramen). In their soulless rehashing of the same old decor and accoutrements they seem little different to those brewery chain boozers with their fake beams and bulk-bought horse brasses and tankards.

Except, of course, they are a darned sight more expensive. From your premium ales to your lamb tagine via your gourmet crisps and your bowl of lightly salted pistachios, gastropubbing is a pricey business. Even Michelin's Bulmer cautions that the expensive menus now found in many pubs means they are "basically restaurants with a bar". Not that there's anything wrong with restaurants with a bar, but frequently, the fare on offer in these repro gastropubs does not really warrant the price-tag - on reflection, I am not wholly certain last night's scallops were genuinely worth £13.50, for example.

Meanwhile the menus, inevitably scrawled across blackboards, are written in a curious small-town-brasserie-meets-Jamie Oliver vernacular: all crushed foie gras potatoes, hunks of this, rumps of that, mash, hash, splash, and hand-cut things made for dunking. The roll-call of skate wings and goat's cheese and Toulouse sausages seem to have been shipped in with the sofas and the Staropramen.

Yes, it is brilliant that Britain has hauled itself up from its culinary slump, that we now live in a land where manchego and quince paste is offered up in a bar entirely without apology or explanation and that we have repatriated rhubarb crumble and devilled kidneys. But sometimes it strikes me that the ubiquitous gastropub menu, with its pork belly and polenta and cod and tapenade and wilted greens and chips-with-aioli (always bloody chips-with-aioli - what the hell happened to malt vinegar?) is really no different to the chiming predictability of the chicken in a basket and scampi and chips we were served in the 80s.

The ambience is different now, of course. There is no longer the piped music or jukeboxes offering Venus in Blue Jeans and the hits of Slade - instead gastropubs hire DJs to "spin" (not fricassee or flash-fry or muddle) a breed of what one must describe as blah blah blah music, the aural equivalent of one of those extremely pointless yet exceedingly large coffee table books. Indeed it is most probable you are resting your pint of Staropramen on one of the DJ's flyers rather than a beermat. Twenty years ago, the notion of having a DJ in a pub, except for a very special occasion when he might have been expected to play at least one Black Lace record, would have seemed preposterous. But the times, and the drinkers, have changed.

Today, gastropubs are where affluent young couples come to chill out, together, en masse, with their toddlers. They are chrome-loving, loft-style living, dinner party drug-users with expensive haircuts and a steady line in casual chic, and the gastropubs they frequent are the flagpoles of the relentless urban gentrification occurring across the country. Yes, arguably my objection to them is because they embody what I myself fear becoming, with my poncy media job and my extensive knowledge of balsamic vinegar, but mostly I am simply unsettled by what gastropubs represent: this kind of blond-wooded Britain that brunches and boozes and barristas, and is ever so pleased with itself for doing so; because in the gastropub world, everything is swimming in olive oil and smugness.

What I miss is those shabby pubs that smell of dirt and tobacco and stout, where you're as likely to get into a brawl as you are to find a packet of ready-salted Seabrooks crisps. Where old men hunch over a pint of mild and the only soundtrack is the put-put-put of a game of pool in the back room. No DJs, no Heal's sofas, no blackened salmon or pilaff or cous-cous. No gastronomy, just pub.


Rave from the grave...

Back blogging again. I haven't done anything much for about a month, which in the blogosphere is considered a century or two.

I suppose a lot has been happening in the world in that time, but I haven't been commenting on it. Perhaps it is because I am showing my age, and it's "same old, same old" to me. When I was a lad, every little political development seemed to be an incipient sign of the end and/or revolution, but now a feeling of ennui grips me all too often. I shouldn't be like that, the world is as exciting as ever, or so a nagging voice in my head tells me.

Anyway, I have some big blog pieces that I would like to get up and running. However, I need some real sitting down and concentrating to attempt these in a worthwhile manner (remember that procrastination is the id to the ego of perfectionism). I sent a couple of pieces to the New Statesman (basically e-mailing anyone of consequence there) but I have had no replies as yet. I don't want to say anything about that lack of response yet. The lack of response must be partly, I guess, a consequence of a period of high excitement in British politics at the moment (wake up at the back!!) what with the Tony v Gordon battles. I've said things previously about the whole saga before in my blog, but a few other comments may be in order here.

First of all, this is very much a battle between two wings of New Labour. Only those who still quaintly refer to Labour as "The Socialists" would see a Gordon Brown victory as meaning we become "the New North Korea" or some such nonsense. New Labour is built on the myth, forged in the aftermath of the 92 General Election defeat, that the public will never vote for higher taxes for essential services such as health and education, despite what they may say in opinion polls. In fact, the majority did vote for such policies in 92.

However, the voters were split between Labour and the Lib Dems (and other parties considered to be "Centre-Left", such as the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens) so the Tory minority was able to get back in with a split opposition vote. Now I think it would be harder to get people to support tax rises, because so much has ostensibly been ploughed into health, education and other social services without much discernible effect. However, a lot of that is to do with the various scams pulled by consultants, accountants and the verious other parasites who have made a killing out of New Labour embacing the private sector, without New Labour having much of a clue about how the private sector works under Actual Existing Capitalism. A book I have been reading in the past few weeks of blog silence worth having a read of is Plundering The Public Sector: How New Labour are letting consultants run off with £70 billion of our money by David Craig and Richard Brooks. Opinion polls I have seen recently suggest that people are losing faith in the Welfare State, including the NHS. If the public sees the Welfare State increasingly as a means of funneling public money into the pockets of a bunch of private sector hucksters after the quick buck, no wonder the public has lost faith in it!

The other point I was going to say about the whole Blair-Brown saga is the myth that Blair is an election winner. Let's be honest, before he died in May 94 John Smith was well on the way to a solid Labour majority at the next General Election. OK, it would almost certainly have not been the 179 Blair achieved in 97, but it would have been solid enough (and would a smaller majority have been such a bad thing?). The Cons were in serious trouble by May 94, and people were sick to the back teeth of them by then. In 2001 Blair faced William Hague (I loved the strapline of his weekly column between 2001 and 2005 in the News of the World: "He Knows: He's Been There"...WTF?), who came across as one of those kids you used to see on Jim'll Fix It: "Dear Jim, can you fix it for me to become leader of the Conservative Party?". However, Mister Saville would make sure it was only for a day. Young Master Hague had the post for four years. Any half-decent Labour leader would have won against William Hague. In 2005, Labour got in quite narrowly, and the main reason for that was Gordon Brown being allowed on the election trail with TB, as opposed to being shunted over to the election trail equivalent of a Siberian power station. If anyone remembers, at the start of 2005 Blair's campaign manager was Alan Milburn, one of those bugger all in a suit types the Cons used to specialise in during the 1990s, and which Blair likes to surround himself with. The election was going to be all about public sector "Choice" rather than providing nearby quality hospitals, schools etc. When the polls started to show the Cons coming close to Lab Milburn was dropped (there is serious talk of him standing as the Blairite candidate for leader- do they want to lose the next election so badly?) and Gordon Brown was hastily rehabilitated and brought back on the national election campaign. Even with Brown and the playing on Labour's economic record (surely with anyone with half a political brain, their trump card) it was a damn close thing in 2005, a General Election won despite of Blair, not because of him.

Something else I was reading recently was an article by Ross McKibbin in the London Review of Books which makes the point I've made before: the pro-Americanism of New Labour, Brown as well as Blair:

"To Blair, and even more to Gordon Brown and his kitchen cabinet, America stands for ingenuity, dynamism, wealth and power. It is the model we should aspire....New Labour's relentless urge to privatise, to provide 'choice', even in areas where most of us don't want to make choices (like the secondary school system), to minimise the public sphere, all comes from the US. The Treasury's labour market policies are largely American...."

McKibbin also makes the point that the British public's resistance to public sector "reform" has:

"...increased the frustration felt by the Americanising members of the government- especially the prime minister- and thrown them ever more enthusiastically into the arms of American foreign policy, since in this area the preferences of the electorate don't keep getting in the way."

So expect, "same old, same old" when Blair finally ascends to Heaven. Blimey, I'm tired. However, I will keep ploughing on for a while. I need to stay up. I start nights at work tomorrow evening, and the quicker I adapt to staying up at night, the better.

Friday, September 01, 2006


I was working nights today (if that is not an oxymoron) & someone had a leaving do ie she is moving to work days at weekends. Hence I wasn't at the mass lone demo(s) outside the Houses of Parliament. Please check London Pics if you are curious.

PS Great quote I heard last week. A modern Russian saying: "Drink in the morning and the rest of your day is free".

Monday, August 28, 2006

Big Brother and stuff

No, no, not the crap Channel 4 boreathon (pity they didn't do it like the book- human faces being stamped on by boots forever and helmets with rats) but 24/7 surveillance wherever you are. Like this...

It's not always good to share: A government plan for data sharing between public bodies threatens to further undermine civil liberties in the wake of the ID cards debacle
Michael Cross, The Guardian, Thursday August 24, 2006

Ministers are preparing to overturn a fundamental principle of data protection in government, the Guardian has learned. They will announce next month that public bodies can assume they are free to share citizens' personal data with other arms of the state, so long as it is in the public interest.

The policy was agreed upon by a cabinet committee set up by the prime minister, and reverses the current default position - which requires public bodies to find a legal justification each time they want to share data about individuals.

The officials behind the "transformational government" scheme say data sharing could present a more consumer-friendly face to government, and help tackle social problems such as prisoners re-offending.

For example, officials say, when moving house, a citizen would register the change online once with their local authority's "one stop shop". It would update its own records, that of the new local authority, and then of central government, including the electoral register, DVLA and Inland Revenue.

A destruction of liberty

Similarly, on completing a prison sentence, an ex-offender's details would be available to probation officers, local authority social services and the employment service, reducing the risk of people with criminal records disappearing from government records and re-offending.

Simon Davies, of the pressure group Privacy International, described the timing of the new policy as "sick", but said he was not surprised. "It's about the most blatant destruction of liberty we have seen for a while," he said.

Apart from the implications for privacy, widespread data sharing would enable different arms of the state to operate as one body - collecting fines and taxes on behalf of another agency, for example. This would be a major threat to civil liberty, Davies said. "Functional separation [between departments] is an important principle of justice and accountability, for example allowing you to fight a local authority on its own turf," he said. "This effectively dismantles that limitation."

Besides alarming groups concerned about the spread of the "big brother" state, the "transformational government" strategy, under which the new policy was drawn up, has already raised concerns about data protection from the information commissioner.

Contravenes data protection law

Presently, data sharing in government is regulated by several tiers of law. Like commercial companies, public bodies must comply with the data protection act. They are also subject to the common law duty of confidentiality, as well as statutes covering the release of specific sets of data: these can block data sharing even when the citizen concerned gives permission.

In November last year, the Transformational Government strategy drawn up by Ian Watmore, now head of the prime minister's delivery unit, set out proposals for government bodies to share IT systems and other infrastructure to enable public services to be designed around citizens rather than bureaucracies.

Earlier this year, the Cabinet Office revealed that the prime minister had set up a ministerial committee, called Misc 31, to examine data sharing. In early July, the committee, chaired by Hilary Armstrong, minister for the Cabinet Office, agreed to a new statement of the government's position: "Information will normally be shared in the public sector, provided it is in the public interest." Ministers are due to announce a policy based on this position in the week beginning September 11.

Davies said the new policy would end the current "truce" between the privacy lobby and government. "If the government want to play dirty, they'll find themselves staring down the barrels of something akin to the ID card debate. I would hope there's going to be a monumental row." Davies has been at the forefront of those opposing the ID card, which the Labour administration is seeking to introduce.

The new policy appears to contravene a key principle of the data protection act, which is that "personal data shall be obtained only for one or more specified and lawful purposes, and shall not be further processed in any manner incompatible with that purpose or those purposes". Ministers are likely to argue that efficient public administration is not incompatible with other purposes.

The data protection registrar, Richard Thomas, would not comment on Misc 31's decision ahead of the formal announcement. He has, however, previously said that all government data sharing must be in accordance with the data protection act. Last month, he commented that while he supported "sensible" information sharing, the government risked losing public trust if "reasonable expectations of privacy are not met".

The official in charge of making Transformational Government happen, John Suffolk, the government's chief information officer, says there is no intention to create a free for all. "Not all information will be shared," he told the Guardian in an interview last week. Most frequently, data sharing will just be a matter of allowing access to names and addresses, he said.

"This is not about sharing your health record or criminal record. It's about basic data sharing to ensure that services to citizens are seamless." Government databases will still be subject to the data protection act, and accessible only by people who need the information.

Such statements are unlikely to satisfy critics. Even some government IT chiefs have concerns about the new policy. "Who defines the public interest?" asks Glyn Evans, head of business solutions and IT at Birmingham City council, which was well ahead of central government in making its services electronically available. Preserving trust is especially important in local government, says Evans. "These aren't anonymous civil servants viewing your data, they could be your next door neighbour."

Thomas criticised the Transformational Government programme's intention to make wider use of the national insurance number to identify citizens. He "has significant concerns" over whether the existing national insurance number is robust or secure enough to be used as a single identifier for all government transactions.

Originally generated for use in connection with benefits and taxation, the NI number has limitations, he says: "There has been no tradition of individuals keeping the number secure. If the number becomes a single reference to gain access to a wider variety of personal information held by government this poses a significant security risk."

Suffolk says that while no decision has been made, the national insurance database is the most likely candidate to become a central repository of citizens' names and addresses. "They have done a tremendous amount of work on data cleansing."

Whatever policy decisions emerge, Transformational Government's approach to data protection and privacy will face widespread critical scrutiny in the light of the identity card controversy. The new data sharing policy is likely to be set out in terms that emphasise its use in improving the accuracy of information and protecting privacy.

But Evans advocates taking one step further - letting citizens decide which public body has access to which pieces of personal data. While the idea is being tested in local government, "it may be a step too radical for Whitehall," he says.

What the hell's "the public interest"? "Hey, look, you know, its truly is the People's Public Interest..."

Blogging late tonight, 20 to 4 in the morning here in not so sunny London town. Being busy writing articles for the New Statesman. Hopefully they will think them good, publish them and even pay me. Nothing that regular readers (yes, just your good self I'm afraid- again) will be surprised at. One is a critique of "New Britishness", the other a sort of review of Tom Nairn's The Break-Up of Britain, one of the most important political books I've ever read, which was published 30 years ago next year, and had a second edition with a Postscript anticipating New Labour published 25 years ago this Autumn. Originally the two articles were really one, but I managed to disentagle them.

Anglo-Scottish co-operation...

I had given up on pro-English and pro-Scottish political groups getting on and supporting each other, but the English Democrats proved me wrong (rather too far to "the Right" for my liking, but they aren't racist/BNPish)...

Vote SNP in 2007 and connect with the English!

The on-going scandal of English students being the only ones in the UK to face University top-up fees this September had a new twist today when the SNP came out in condemnation at the blatant "anti-English" policies pursued by New Labour, Lib Dems and Conservatives alike.

The SNP have exposed the spiteful anti-English pact between Lib Dems and New Labour in Scotland, who jointly agreed to inflict extra financial penalties on English university students should they try to avoid paying English top-up fees (imposed let us not forget by Scottish and Welsh MPs!!)

In a public repudiation of this disgusting example of blatant anti-Englishness, the SNP have announced their intention to remove all punitive charges on English students wishing to study in Scotland, and give English students exactly the same rights as any other citizen living within the EU if they are elected to the Scottish Parliament next year.

The English Democrats congratulate the SNP for this wholely proper gesture. The EDP condemns all three main political parties in England for their continued discrimination against the people of England and urge all fairminded Scots, to vote for the Scottish National Party in the forthcoming election as it is clear that only the Scottish Nationalists understand the importance of fairness and equality in political life, without it the Liberal Democrats, New Labour and Conservatives will continue their inexorable decline - something we heartily welcome.

The Times
27 Aug 2006 by Ed

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Interview with Gore Vidal

"Never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television."- Gore Vidal.

Dubya being interviewed by Gore Vidal would make very good television...

Gore Vidal By David Barsamian, August 2006 Issue of The Progressive

Gore Vidal is a gold mine of quips and zingers. And his vast knowledge of literature and history—particularly American—makes for an impressive figure. His razor-sharp tongue lacerates the powerful. He does it with aplomb, saying, “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” He has a wry sense of noblesse oblige: “There is no human problem which could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise.”

Now eighty, he lives in the Hollywood hills in a modest mansion with immodest artwork. I felt I was entering a museum of Renaissance art. A stern painting of the Emperor Constantine was looking down upon us as we sat in his majestic living room. A Buddha statue from Thailand stood nearby. But all was not somber. He had a Bush doll with a 9/11 bill sticking out of it on a table behind us.

His aristocratic pedigree is evident not just in his artistic sophistication but also in his locution. In a war of words, few can contend with Vidal.

“I’m a lover of the old republic and I deeply resent the empire our Presidents put in its place,” he declares.

Vidal moved gingerly and was using a cane. A recent knee operation left him less mobile. He says, “The mind is still agile but the knees have grown weak.” We sat in upholstered chairs. On a nearby table I saw the galleys of his second memoir, Point to Point Navigation. It will be out this fall. His earlier one, Palimpsest, came out in 1995.

Prolific does not even begin to describe Vidal’s literary output. He’s the author of scores of novels, plays, screenplays, essays. In 1993, he won the National Book Award for his collection of essays, United States. His recent books (he calls them “pamphlets”)—Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace, Dreaming War, and Imperial America—have sold in huge numbers. When I asked him what was the point of his work, he said, “I am chronicling America.” The prose, whether polemical or fictional, is elegant.

Distantly related to Jackie Kennedy, he does not romanticize JFK. “He was one of the most charming men I’ve ever known,” says Vidal. “He was also one of the very worst Presidents.”

He’s been a Democratic candidate for the House from New York and for the Senate from California. Today, he ridicules the Democrats for supineness.

He sees a certain continuity in U.S. foreign policy over the last fifty years. “The management, then and now, truly believes the United States is the master of the Earth and anyone who defies us will be napalmed or blockaded or covertly overthrown,” he says. “We are beyond law, which is not unusual for an empire; unfortunately, we are also beyond common sense.”

I talked with him on a hot afternoon in mid-April.

Q: In 2002, long before Bush’s current travails, you wrote, “Mark my words, he will leave office the most unpopular President in history.” How did you know that then?

Gore Vidal: I know these people. I don’t say that as though I know them personally. I know the types. I was brought up in Washington. When you are brought up in a zoo, you know what’s going on in the monkey house. You see a couple of monkeys loose and one is President and one is Vice President, you know it’s trouble. Monkeys make trouble.

Q: Bush’s ratings have been at personal lows. Cheney has had an 18 percent approval rating.

Vidal: Well, he deserves it.

Q: Yet the wars go on. It’s almost as if the people don’t matter.

Vidal: The people don’t matter to this gang. They pay no attention. They think in totalitarian terms. They’ve got the troops. They’ve got the army. They’ve got Congress. They’ve got the judiciary. Why should they worry? Let the chattering classes chatter. Bush is a thug. I think there is something really wrong with him.

Q: What do you think of the conspiracy theories about September 11?

Vidal: I’m willing to believe practically any mischief on the part of the Bush people. No, I don’t think they did it, as some conspiracy people think. Why? Because it was too intelligently done. This is beyond the competence of Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld. They couldn’t pull off a caper like 9/11. They are too clumsy.

Q: Today the United States is fighting two wars, one in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, and is now threatening to launch a third one on Iran. What is it going to take to stop the Bush onslaught?

Vidal: Economic collapse. We are too deeply in debt. We can’t service the debt, or so my financial friends tell me, that’s paying the interest on the Treasury bonds, particularly to the foreign countries that have been financing us. I think the Chinese will say the hell with you and pull their money out of the United States. That’s the end of our wars.

Q: You’re a veteran of World War II, the so-called good war. Would you recommend to a young person a career in the armed forces in the United States?

Vidal: No, but I would suggest Canada or New Zealand as a possible place to go until we are rid of our warmongers. We’ve never had a government like this. The United States has done wicked things in the past to other countries but never on such a scale and never in such an existentialist way. It’s as though we are evil. We strike first. We’ll destroy you. This is an eternal war against terrorism. It’s like a war against dandruff. There’s no such thing as a war against terrorism. It’s idiotic. These are slogans. These are lies. It’s advertising, which is the only art form we ever invented and developed.

But our media has collapsed. They’ve questioned no one. One of the reasons Bush and Cheney are so daring is that they know there’s nobody to stop them. Nobody is going to write a story that says this is not a war, only Congress can declare war. And you can only have a war with another country. You can’t have a war with bad temper or a war against paranoids. Nothing makes any sense, and the people are getting very confused. The people are not stupid, but they are totally misinformed.

Q: You’ve called the country “The United States of Amnesia.” Is this something in our genes?

Vidal: No, it’s something in our rulers. They don’t want us to know anything. When you’ve got a press like we have, you no longer have an informed citizenry.

I was involved somewhat with Congressman Con-yers on what happened in Ohio during the last Presidential election.

Conyers is the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, and he went up there with a bunch of researchers. They went from district to district, and they found out how the election was stolen. He wrote a report that was published by a small press in Chicago. To help out, I said I’d write a preface for him on how the election was stolen. We were thinking that might help. But The New York Times and The Washington Post were not going to review the book about how we had a second Presidential election stolen. They weren’t going to admit it.

A huge number of Americans still believe that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11. You have a people that don’t know anything about the rest of the world, and you have leaders who lie to them, lie to them, and lie to them.

It’s so stupid, everything that they say. And the media take on it is just as stupid as theirs, sometimes worse. They at least have motives. They are making money out of the republic or what’s left of it. It’s the stupidity that will really drive me away from this country.

Q: When were the media better?

Vidal: They’ve never been much good. They belong to the people who own them. But they were better, the level was higher. There used to be foreign correspondents in other countries. There’s nobody abroad now. The New York Times gave up being anything except a kind of shadow of The Wall Street Journal. The Washington Post is the court circular. What has the emperor done today? And who will be the under-assistant of the secretary of agriculture? As though these things mattered.

Q: What do you think of the public advertising of one’s faith among political leaders? They make a show of going to church and participating in ceremonies.

Vidal: Personally I find it sickening, and very much against what our Founders had in mind. Remember that the country was mostly founded by Brits, and England’s always gotten credit for having invented hypocrisy. So we are reflecting our British heritage when we hypocritically talk about how religious we are.

Q: Is the U.S. more like Sparta than Athens?

Vidal: We’re not so good as either. We certainly are not warlike. Spartans were based upon military service. We don’t want that. We want to make money, which I always thought was one of the most admirable things about Americans. We didn’t want to go out and conquer other countries. We wanted to corner wheat in the stock market or something sensible like that. So we are very unbelligerent. We were dragged screaming into World War I. Well, we were slightly enthusiastic about that, but we were very innocent farm people in those days. In World War II, we fought to stay out of that war. And every liberal figure in the United States from Norman Thomas on was anti-war. They were isolationists in the old populist tradition. So we never had a chance of being Sparta.

Q: Talk about the role of the opposition party, the Democrats.

Vidal: It isn’t an opposition party. I have been saying for the last thousand years that the United States has only one party—the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican.

Q: What can people do to energize democracy?

Vidal: The tactic would be to go after smaller offices, state by state, school board, sheriff, state legislatures. You can turn them around and that doesn’t take much of anything. Take back everything at the grassroots, starting with state
legislatures. That’s what Madison always said. I’d like to see a revival of state legislatures, in which I am a true Jeffersonian.

Q: Do you see any developments on the horizon that might suggest an alternative?

Vidal: Newton’s Third Law. I hope that law is still working. American laws don’t work, but at least the laws of physics might work. And the Third Law is: There is no action without reaction. There should be a great deal of reaction to the total incompetence of this Administration. It’s going to take two or three generations to recover what we had as of twenty years ago.

David Barsamian is the director of Alternative Radio in Boulder, Colorado. His latest book is “Original Zinn: Conversations on History and Politics.”

How to really bring down the West...

Hijacking planes is so passe, Osama...

Sell-out: Why hedge funds will destroy the world
If hedge funds were a country, it would be the eighth-biggest on the planet. They can sink whole economies, and have the potential to crash the entire global financial system. Yet they are beyond regulation. We should be very afraid.
Janet Bush, New Statesman, Monday 31st July 2006

Something ominous is going on in world finance - again. On 11 May, the US Federal Reserve, America's central bank, raised rates and hinted that it might do so again. Wall Street wobbled but stock markets in the emerging economies fell through the floor. Since that day, Colombia's stock market has slumped by 42 per cent; Turkey's by 38 per cent; Pakistan and Egypt by 28 per cent; India by 25 per cent; the Czech Republic by 22 per cent.

Why? These fast-developing economies have been the recent darlings of the world's mobile capital, acting as magnets for multinational corporations seeking new frontiers. Yes, the US economy is still the biggest in the world and changes in US interest rates affect the entire global financial system. But there is something very dark indeed at the heart of this story and it is called the hedge-fund industry - lords of havoc who, a consensus is building, have the potential to be responsible for the next great crash - and nobody knows what to do about it.

Howard Davies, then chairman of Britain's Financial Services Authority (FSA), admitted in 2000 that hedge funds were not very well understood by policy-makers and regulators, but then added: "That is not astonishing in one sense, in that if we do not regulate it, we need know less about it. But it is clear that if we are interested in systemic stability, we cannot ignore a sector which can mobilise around the same volume of assets as the US commercial banking sector."

When Dr Ben Bernanke, chairman of the US Federal Reserve, the most important financial supervisor of all, was quizzed by the US Senate banking committee about whether derivatives - complex financial instruments liberally used by hedge funds - should be regulated, he commented: "Derivatives, for the most part, are traded among very sophisticated financial institutions and individuals who have considerable incentive to understand them and use them properly." This statement came pretty close to admitting that regulators don't have a clue what is going on and are therefore powerless to regulate the funds. Given their sheer size and increasing influence, this is stunning - and scary.

Hedge funds are private investment funds, primarily organised as limited partnerships - in essence, betting syndicates for the very rich. The amount of money they handle, in so far as anyone can estimate this, is mind-bogglingly large. The IMF's best estimate is $1trn; industry professionals reckon $1.5trn. If hedge funds were a country, it would be the eighth-largest in the world. To invest in one of these funds, you have to put in a minimum of $1m, although that initial investment is chicken feed compared with what can be earned - if that is the right verb for what amounts to global-scale gambling. The US Institutional Investor Magazine reckons that the top 25 hedge-fund managers in 2005 earned on average $251m each in 2004 - compared with $10m for the CEO of a typical top 500 US corporation.

Hedge funds are not new - just notorious. They started to take off properly in the late 1970s when floating exchange rates and volatile interest-rate movements transformed the capital markets, and gathered momentum as technology and electronic trading became increasingly quick and soph isticated. The funds were - and are - run typically by a tight group of traders, backed usually by fewer than a hundred individuals prepared to commit a great deal of money into their hands. Today, it is estimated that there are 9,000 funds and what started as a US phenomenon is spreading - though the FSA estimates that there are at present only 325 hedge funds based in the UK.

The key features of these funds are that they trade in eye-watering risk and they are barely regulated. The two are related. Because they answer to nobody but themselves, hedge funds have side-stepped regulation and can do as they like. What they like is risk - and their main tool is "leverage" - borrowing to play the markets. It is not unusual for a hedge-fund investor to control $100m in securities with only a $5m down payment. Of course, that means that when a bet goes wrong, it goes spectacularly wrong. If the hedge-fund industry's positions in the market are 20 times the cash they actually hold, their potential impact on the world financial system is about equal to US GDP.

That is why the emerging-market stock markets have taken such a battering over the past two months. Hedge funds poured money into emerging markets in the search for high returns, able to borrow billions relatively cheaply while interest rates were low. But as soon as the cost of borrowing increased they had to bail out rapidly, leaving the developing economies to clean up the mess.

Of course, recent losses were preceded by spectacular gains. India's stock market had doubled in two years, hailed by the country's leaders as proof that the Indian economy had taken off. For some, at least, it has - but the stock-market boom has greatly exaggerated India's progress. There have been huge inflows of equity investment from foreign investment banks and hedge funds and a large portion of that money came not from New York, London or Frankfurt, but from Mauritius, an Indian Ocean island that just happens to be a tax haven.

Yet no economy can possibly benefit in the long term from a tsunami of "hot money" crashing in and rolling out as fast as it had arrived. For a long time, India protected its economy with moderate capital controls, but its resistance to neoliberalism finally crumbled as it entered a frantic horse race to attract the increasing number of jobs offshored by developed economies. Now it has call-centres and IT development galore; but the quid pro quo has been a new and intense vulnerability to unstable financial flows.

Devil-may-care money

For the 35 per cent of India's population that the World Bank estimates lives on less than $1 a day, that is a gut-wrenching prospect. The long-term solution for any economy trying to develop in a sustainable way is to rely less on devil-may-care foreign money, institute a framework that encourages long-term investment, and look to its own growing numbers of affluent - some in the diaspora - to invest in their country's future. In the short term, the clamour is growing for hedge funds to be regulated.

Naturally, it is possible to argue that to the brave go the spoils. If hedge-fund investors are prepared to take the risk, why shouldn't they reap the rewards? If they live by risk, they should be allowed to die by it, too - in January the Eifuku Fund, based in Japan, lost $300m in a week.

This argument might hold water if hedge-fund gam- bling were purely a private matter. It isn't. When Enron, the huge US energy trading company that had increasingly relied on risky hedge-fund investing and leverage, collapsed in 2001, 4,500 people lost their jobs and more than $1bn of their pensions. Some $60bn was wiped off the value of US stock markets.

Enron's core business was failing - or had been hijacked by the greed and venality of its management. But hedge funds have the potential to wreck perfectly healthy and well-run companies. One senior British banker told me: "You talk to any FTSE-100 company and they live in fear of the hedge funds. If they choose to short your shares [a contract in which shares are borrowed for a set period on the bet that they will go down in price, and are then bought back, hopefully more cheaply, and repaid to the institution that lent them] you're fucked."

Hedge funds can arrest the development of whole econ omies, and they have the potential to crash the financial system. It has almost happened before. In 1998 the Fed persuaded the "Fourteen Families" (an apposite Mafia reference) of Wall Street - the major banks - to cough up money for a $3.6bn bailout for Long-Term Capital Management, a hedge fund whose bets went wrong. The Fed said at the time that LTCM's failure had been abrupt and disorderly and had posed "unacceptable risks to the American economy".

Nasty surprises

Has the lesson been learned? Of course not. Only a year after LTCM went under, the huge California Public Employees' Retirement System won the go-ahead from its board to invest up to $11bn - or a quarter - of the state pension fund's port folio in hedge funds. The FSA recently cited a J P Morgan survey which estimated that UK pension funds had allocated 4.8 per cent of their portfolios to hedge funds at the end of 2004, more than double the figure the previous year. Railpen, the UK railway pension fund, has invested £600m of its assets in a hedge-fund partnership, and Sainsbury's pension scheme has trebled its exposure to hedge funds.

So an increasing amount of ordinary people's money is available for use at the global gambling table. But how much could be at risk? We just don't know - and that means there is scope for any number of nasty surprises.

Even worse, as the regulators have admitted, they don't really understand this industry well enough to be able to deal with it. In June, the hedge-fund industry held a jolly at Knebworth, dubbed Hedgestock. Look at the titles of just two of the discussions: "'I can't believe it's not Beta' - Simple Beta, Complex Beta, Virgin Beta, and ABS factors - any Alpha left to spread around?"; and "'Incubator Alligator?' - sowing seeds, but do they stay for a cigarette?". One feels some sympathy for the Fed and the FSA.

In a world where, increasingly, we have only to twitch to be regulated it is pretty noteworthy that hedge funds are the exception. Either, in some way that we aren't clever enough to understand, they are of overwhelming importance to our collective well-being; or the regulators have in effect colluded with the wild frontiers of modern-day finance. They continually argue that hedge funds, by taking risks others won't, play a useful role in oiling the wheels of global markets.

Now, even they are alarmed that a hedge-fund-triggered meltdown is coming. Yet their efforts to move in on the hedge funds have been half-hearted at best, the habit of laissez- faire hard to shake off. Even when a serious regulatory effort has been attempted, it has been outmanoeuvred. In February America's Securities and Exchange Commission finally started requiring hedge-fund managers both within the United States and outside to register if they have more than 14 US-based investors and $30m or more in assets. In June the rule was thrown out by the US court of appeals for the District of Columbia circuit, on the grounds that it was "arbitrary" and didn't make a compelling case. Two senior Democratic senators are now trying to legislate to reverse that ruling.

Surely the Europeans, the last bastions against Anglo-Saxon free-market mania, will ride to the rescue. Well, not exactly. The EU internal market and services commissioner, Charlie McCreevy, recently ruled out new rules to regulate hedge funds, saying that they played a crucial role in putting the "fear of God" into company boards, to the benefit of all. A group set up to study hedge funds for the European Commission recently argued that the European industry was adequately regulated and needed to be protected from onerous new rules threatened from the United States.

So, hedge funds are increasingly looking to relocate from the US to Europe. It looks as if the wanton boys of the Dan gerous Sports Club will be allowed to carry on playing their virtual-reality money games - even closer to us poor sods trying to earn our livings.

Inside the hedge: a day in the life
by Al Fahunter

6.45am: I am in front of my multiple screens at our St James's-based offices after a Tube ride from north London, beating the rush hour and allowing me to read up on news and concentrate on the ordre du jour.

By 8am, when all European markets open, the phones stop ringing for about 45 minutes. This is when we decide what we'll do for the morning, trading-wise, until the US market opens or corporate and economic data feeds through. Today's story is that AMD is bidding for ATI in the US - great news if you hold European semiconductor stocks in Europe and Asia like me. The bad news is that Bank of Cyprus has pulled its counterbid for Emporiki Bank after a thumbs-down from Central Bank of Cyprus. I'd been building a position in Emporiki in the hope that Crédit Agricole would trump the Cypriots. I'm now looking at a €2 loss per share.

I concentrate on special situations in stocks and bonds - easily translated into M&A investments and corporate events, which have performed very well this year. I buy shares in the bid target and, depending on the bid structure, hedge my position by selling other shares or bonds - allowing me to leverage (ie, borrow) against the assets I manage. This usually inflates the bet two to three times the size of my investment, allowing me to reduce the risk and accentuate the gains.

My diary has calmed down for the summer, but the corporate reporting season is about to kick off: some companies are still vying for my votes or funds, so lunch is sushi at the desk while I catch up on the trading update. Like the 8am opening in Europe, the US opening at 2.30pm is followed by a period of tranquillity. Markets in Europe close at 4.30pm and we have the end-of-day auctions. I still have to attend a meeting and get a round-up from our traders. The gym beckons around 7pm; I have a quick drink with a broker at Just St James to catch up on gossip. Having missed Arki Busson's charity evening, which raised £18m in one night in June (it clashed with World Cup trips to Germany), I was dying to know who bid for the yoga session with Sting. If only I hadn't had to listen to the glowing praise for Arsenal's new stadium from one of my Arsenal-supporting brokers who attended the Dennis Bergkamp testimonial last Saturday, I could have called it a good day.

Al Fahunter is a pseudonym

Hedge funds by numbers

$1.5trn Total amount of money managed by hedge funds worldwide

9,000 Estimated number of hedge funds today

$250bn Estimated value of the Asian hedge-fund industry by 2010

$750,000 Amount that GLG Partners was fined for alleged insider trading by its star hedge-fund manager, Philippe Jabre

Research by Daniel Trilling

Terror and Science

If he's still alive (properly alive, as opposed to being kept alive like Ingsoc kept Immanuel Goldstein alive) I wonder what Whitney Houston fan Osama is thinking about the fact that every time someone makes the least commotion on a transatlantic flight these days a couple of fighter planes are sent up? I bet he's thanking Allah that didn't happen on September 11th 2001 over the North East United States...

It seems that most people here have no faith in the Government telling the truth, or anything like the truth, about The War Against Terror any more. To quote John Arbuthnot from 1735 "All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies", and it seems New Labour has reached the point when it can dig that hole no more.

It seems the same is true in the USA. The piece below by Ted Rall (via Lew Rockwell's blog) draws on an article by The Register which basically suggests that the "plotters" would have had to take over the toilets on the plane for a suspiciously long time for the liquid explosives that were supposed to be at the heart of the "plot" to work...

Americans Shrug at Phony Binary Explosives Threat

LOS ANGELES--Attention, citizens of the national community: stay tuned for a HomeSec alert! A fiendish plot has been uncovered! Terrorists loyal to the sinister forces of Eastasia have been apprehended! It is another glorious victory for the homeland! All hail Oceania!

It was hard not to suffer a 1984 flashback on August 10th, when UK authorities and their rhetorical American partners claimed to have rounded up more than two dozen British Muslims accused of--or so they claimed--participation in an elaborate plot to commit "mass murder on an unimaginable scale." According to Britain's national Crown Prosecution Service the suspects planned "to smuggle the component parts of improvised explosive devices onto aircraft and assemble and detonate them on board" as many as ten passenger jets bound for the United States from England.

The airline industry, long teetering on the edge of financial catastrophe, could easily be shoved headlong into oblivion as the result of harsh new security restrictions. Travelers are being asked to arrive at the airport three hours before their scheduled departure times because of longer lines at shortstaffed security checkpoints. All liquids and gels--staple components of cosmetics, toothpaste, medicine and other toiletries--have been banned from carry-on baggage, adding at least another hour to the trips of carry-on-only passengers who previously never had to wait for their belongings to disgorge upon the baggage carousel.

Industry analysts say travelers aren't afraid of being blown up by terrorists. They're right. Hundreds of millions of people fly each year; very few end up shredded among the wreckage of an office tower. But passengers are afraid. They fear that the government's draconian security measures will make them miss their flights. That real and wholly justifiable fear has already cut ticket sales by as much as 20 percent.

A mere two days after British officials announced that they had foiled the dastardly Islamofascists terror plot, and the Bush Administration crowed that this news somehow proved that they had once again kept us safe, Americans weren't fazed in the least. People polled by Newsweek said, 54 to 26 percent, they still didn't want to give up their carry-on bags. As the Republican Party continued its suicidal stay-the-course mantra into the November midterm elections, the sound of a Great National Shrug greeted the latest triumphalist shrieks from America's telescreens.

Could it be, despite our leaders' long-established record of always telling us the truth no matter what, that we can't be sure there was a plot at all? Or that, if there was a plot, it wasn't viable--certainly not nearly enough to justify the risk to the airline industry or hassling hundreds of millions of travelers?

According to the respected and irreverent British technology publication The Register, the plot--if it existed--was a joke. Smuggling the component parts of triacetone triperoxide (TATP)--the liquid explosive we've been told was the object of the wannabe jihadis' vengeance fantasies--and successfully mixing them into a brew powerful enough to bring down a plane would require skills far beyond the capabilities of, well, anyone.

"First," wrote The Register, "you've got to get adequately concentrated hydrogen peroxide. This is hard to come by, so a large quantity of the three per cent solution sold in pharmacies might have to be concentrated by boiling off the water...Take your hydrogen peroxide, acetone, and sulfuric acid, measure them very carefully, and put them into drink bottles for convenient smuggling onto a plane. It's all right to mix the peroxide and acetone in one container, so long as it remains cool. Don't forget to bring several frozen gel-packs (preferably in a Styrofoam chiller deceptively marked "perishable foods"), a thermometer, a large beaker, a stirring rod, and a medicine dropper. You're going to need them.

"It's best to fly first class and order champagne. The bucket full of ice water, which the airline ought to supply, might possibly be adequate...Once the plane is over the ocean, very discreetly bring all of your gear into the toilet. You might need to make several trips to avoid drawing attention. Once your kit is in place, put a beaker containing the peroxide/acetone mixture into the ice water bath (champagne bucket), and start adding the acid, drop by drop, while stirring constantly. Watch the reaction temperature carefully. The mixture will heat, and if it gets too hot, you'll end up with a weak explosive. In fact, if it gets really hot, you'll get a premature explosion possibly sufficient to kill you, but probably no one else.

"After a few hours--assuming, by some miracle, that the fumes haven't overcome you or alerted passengers or the flight crew to your activities--you'll have a quantity of TATP with which to carry out your mission. Now all you need to do is dry it for an hour or two."

The conclusion is clear: "Certainly, if we can imagine a group of jihadists smuggling the necessary chemicals and equipment on board, and cooking up TATP in the lavatory, then we've passed from the realm of action blockbusters to that of situation comedy."

The "plot," or at least the prosecution thereof, is already unraveling. Two "terrorists" have been released. Of the remaining 23, only 11 have been charged. Of those charged, only eight face charges related to the "plot."

Indeed, perhaps the technology which is supposed to make us safer in T.W.A.T. is more dangerous than anything wannabe loverboys of 72 virgins could ever dream up. For example, electronic passports. The piece below (hat-tip to no2id) comes from mobile security firm Flexisis:

In order to increase the security of United States travel documents, the Government has developed a new ‘electronic passport’ system. This new passport system, slated for deployment in October 2006, will contain RFID tags: chips that will wirelessly send passport and biometric information to an inquiring RFID reader. Through extensive research and real world experimentation, Flexilis has discovered a significant issue in the State Department’s proposed solution. This issue, if not immediately addressed, could put American passport holders at increased risk while traveling abroad for the ten year lifetime of the passport deployment.

RFID e-Passport Vulnerability

Starting October 2006, new U.S. passports will contain RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) chips which hold an individual’s picture and personal information. These chips can be “read” wirelessly from a distance of several feet. In order to prevent thieves from stealing sensitive personal data, the State Department has included several security measures in the proposed passport standard.
Reading a passport’s RFID chip requires a password generated by scanning the machine readable data on the inside front cover. Additionally, a small shield in the front cover is supposed to only allow wireless passport reading when the booklet is open.
The current system prevents attackers from accessing the onboard RFID tag when a passport is fully closed; however, when in a pocket, purse, or briefcase, a passport has a very high probability of being slightly open. Our research has shown that, even when open only a fraction of an inch, the current proposed passport will fail to prevent unwanted RFID communications.

Although the current shield is often ineffective, the chip’s password prevents personal information from being unknowingly disclosed; however, the simple ability for an attacker to know that someone is carrying a passport (and where he or she is carrying it) is a dangerous security breach.

Additionally, it may be possible to determine the nationality of a passport holder by “fingerprinting” the characteristics inherent in each country’s RFID chips. Taken to a logical extreme, this security vulnerability could make it possible for terrorists to craft explosives that detonate only when someone from the U.S. is nearby.

A better solution utilizes a dual cover shield and a specifically designed RFID tag assembly which is able to shield the passport until it is significantly open, not just a fraction of an inch. Thus, even when your passport is slightly open in your pocket, purse, or briefcase, you are protected from malicious data-theft, and (in a pessimistic future) RFID-equipped terrorists.

Even though no personal information is disclosed due to the failure of the current shielding system, such a breach of security has a real potential for people to be hurt, and, given the time until implementation, has a real potential to be corrected with a better solution.

So e-passports may make Americans more vulnerable to terror attacks. Knowing that it's American technology, it'll probably be taken up by our lot here with gusto ("Hey, look, you know, it truly is the People's Passport...").

Stuff on Latin America

What does one make of Hugo Chavez, President of Venezuala? He seems to get up the nose of the Bush Admin, and he seems pretty popular with the poor of his country.Of course, it hardly goes without saying that much of the hostility of the Bush Admin and its cheerleaders towards Chavez is to do with the fact that Venezuala has a lot of oil.

However, being the non-interventionist Little Englander that I am, I wouldn't support sending troops to support him, just as I wouldn't help the Bush Admin to overthrow him. If people want to volunteer in a private capacity to take part in either, go ahead, put your gun where your mouth (or pen, or keyboard) is, but if it all ends in tears and you lose your passport somewhere in downtown Caracas, you shouldn't expect your local embassy to help you out.

However, as the US is so militarily stretched now, it can't send the Marines and 82nd Airborne Division over to Caracas to sort the upstart out. Support a botched coup d'etat, as happened in 2002, seems to be about the size of it at the moment. Plus I guess the US military top brass probably have no idea if Hispanic American soldiers would be prepared to shoot their fellow Latinos. The same doubts about the loyalty of US troops firing on their own "kith and kin" probably influences US planning vis-a-vis Mexico at the moment.

I suppose the US will have to stick to projecting its "soft power" in Latin America, until further notice (or bring back the draft). For instance, US-backed "people power" will be supported. Any other sort of "people power" will have to be ignored if at all possible, as the situation in Mexico at the moment shows.

'People power' is a global brand owned by America:The US and the western media back protests over controversial elections when it suits them, but are silent over those in Mexico
Mark Almond, The Guardian, Tuesday August 15, 2006

A couple of years ago television, radio and print media in the west just couldn't get enough of "people power". In quick succession, from Georgia's rose revolution in November 2003, via Ukraine's orange revolution a year later, to the tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan and the cedar revolution in Lebanon, 24-hour news channels kept us up to date with democracy on a roll.

Triggered by allegations of election fraud, the dominoes toppled. The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, was happy with the trend: "They're doing it in many different corners of the world, places as varied as Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan and, on the other hand, Lebanon ... And so this is a hopeful time."

But when a million Mexicans try to jump on the people-power bandwagon, crying foul about the July 2 presidential elections, when protesters stage a vigil in the centre of the capital that continues to this day, they meet a deafening silence in the global media. Despite Mexico's long tradition of electoral fraud and polls suggesting that Andrés Manuel López Obrador - a critic of the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) - was ahead, the media accepted the wafer-thin majority gained by the ruling party nominee, Harvard graduate Felipe Calderón.
Although Mexico's election authorities rejected López Obrador's demand for all 42m ballots to be recounted, the partial recount of 9% indicated numerous irregularities. But no echo of indignation has wafted to the streets of Mexico City from western capitals.

Maybe Israel's intervention in Lebanon grabbed all the attention and required every hack and videophone. Back in 2004 CNN and the BBC were perfectly able to cover the battle for Falluja and the orange revolution in the same bulletins. Today, however, even a news junkie like me cannot remember a mainstream BBC bulletin live from among the massive crowds in Mexico City. Faced by CNN's indifference to the growing crisis in Mexico, only a retread of an old saying will do: "Pity poor Mexico, so far from Israel, so close to the United States."

Castro's failing health gets more airtime than the constitutional crisis gripping America's southern neighbour, which is one of its major oil suppliers. Apparently, crowds of protesters squatting in Mexico City for weeks protesting against alleged vote-rigging don't make a good news story. Occasionally commentators who celebrated Ukrainians blocking the main thoroughfares of Kiev condescend to jeer at Mexico's sore losers and complain that businessmen are missing deadlines because dead-enders with nothing better to do are holding up the traffic. Ukraine's Viktor Yushchenko was decisive when he declared himself president, but isn't López Obrador a demagogue for doing the same?

The colour-coded revolutionaries of the former Soviet Union had a pro-western agenda - such as bringing Georgia and Ukraine into Nato and the EU - but in Latin America radicals question the wisdom of membership of US-led bodies such as Nafta and the WTO. The crude truth is that Washington cannot afford to let Mexico's vast oil reserves fall into hands of a president even half as radical as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.

But didn't the western observers certify the Mexican polls as "fair", while they condemned the Ukrainian elections? True, but election observers are not objective scientists. The EU relies on politicians, not automatons, to evaluate polls. Take the head of its observer mission, the MEP José Ignacio Salafranca: as a Spanish speaker in Mexico, Salafranca had a huge advantage over many of the MEPs in Ukraine who draped themselves in orange even while en mission - but he is hardly neutral. His rightwing Popular party is an ally of Calderón's Pan party, which is in power in Mexico. Calderón was immediately congratulated by Salafranca's colleague Antonio López-Istúriz on the "great news".

The days of leftwing fraternalism may be over, but the globalist right has its own network, linking the Spanish conservatives, American Republicans and Calderón's Pan party - and they provided the key observer. To paraphrase Stalin: "It doesn't matter who votes, it matters who observes the vote."

Salafranca has a track record as an election observer. In Lebanon's general elections in 2005 he had no problem with the pro-western faction sweeping the board around Beirut with fewer than a quarter of voters taking part and nine of its seats gained without even a token alternative candidate. "It is a feast of democracy," he declared. His mood changed when the democratic banquet moved to areas dominated by Hizbullah or the Christian maverick General Aoun. Suddenly, "vote-buying" and the need for "fundamental reform" popped up in the EU observation reports.

Unanimity on the scale seen across Lebanon suggests that the cedar revolution - despite the hype - did nothing to promote real democratic pluralism. Hizbullah's hold on the south is the most controversial aspect of the sectarian segmentation of Lebanese society, but everywhere local bosses dominate their fiefdoms as before. Similarly, more scepticism about Ukraine's revolution would have left people better informed than the orange boosterism that passed for commentary 18 months ago.

But Mexico is different because it is so under-reported. The cruel reality is that "people power" has become a global brand. But like so many global brands it is owned by Americans. Mexicans and any other "populists" who try to copy it should beware that they're infringing a copyright. No matter how many protesters swarm through Mexico City or how long they protest, it is George Bush and co who decide which people truly represent The People. People power turns out to be about politics, not arithmetic.

Mark Almond is a history lecturer at Oriel College, Oxford

Of course, the USA has a lot of blood on its hands in Latin America. If the Soviet Union had treated the populations of its "sphere of influence" in Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1989 the same way the United States had treated & Latin America during the Twentieth Century, the Americans would have nuked Moscow years ago. Most of the military juntas that ruled much of Latin America for much of the Twentieth Century had as much popular legitimacy as the puppet Communist Parties that ruled the Eastern Bloc until the end of the 1980s. If Lech Walesa had been a Guatemalan independent trade unionist activist and Vaclav Havel an El Salvadorean dissident intellectual in the early 1980s they would have soon ended up in ditches courtesy of the local death squads.

It goes without saying that keeping of control of a country in one's "sphere of influence" doesn't have to be crude and excessively violent. The Soviets never really understood that. Sending troops (either Soviet or local) onto the streets was often the first option when the locals got angry in the Eastern Bloc, and the lack of viable alternative means of maintaining their dominance was one of the reasons the Soviets lost control of their "allies" in 1989.(BTW I have a feeling the Communist nomenclaturas in the USSR and the Eastern Bloc would still be in power today if they had established two ruling parties who fought elections against each other mostly on matters of presentation and style and occasionally swopping the positions of government and opposition, defusing most discontent in wider society in the process. Having two parties representing different wings of the ruling class seems to keep things under control in the USA. To quote the old joke: the USA is a one party system, but being the USA, there's two of them). If only the Soviets had men like John Perkins twenty years back, the CPSU would still be in charge and the Warsaw Pact would be working just fine...

A hit man repents: John Perkins didn't wield a gun - he wasn't even a paid-up CIA agent - but he did have nefarious ways of making countries around the world bend to the will of the US. Until his conscience got the better of him and he looked for other ways to change the world
Gary Younge,The Guardian, Saturday January 28, 2006

On November 24 2002, Lucio Gutierrez swept to power in Ecuador's presidential election. It was a momentous victory for the populist, leftwing leader who had pledged support for the poor indigenous Indians in a country where 60% live in poverty.

The way John Perkins tells it, within a week Gutierrez had a visitor. "An economic hit man walked into his office and said, 'Congratulations, Mr President, I just want you to know that over here I've got a couple of hundred million dollars for you and your family if you cooperate with your Uncle Sam and our oil companies. And over here I have a man with a gun in his hand and a bullet with your name on it.'"

Within two months of his election, Gutierrez had apparently made his choice. Implementing a swingeing austerity programme that attacked the very livelihoods of the people who elected him, he raised fuel prices by more than 35% and froze public sector workers' salaries for a year.

"It's a particularly tough position to be in," admits Perkins. "If you're really conscientious, you're probably going to compromise. You're going to say, 'I've got to stay in office. I can do better than anyone else, but somehow I've got to appease these people.' And the whole time that economic hit man is in your office he's saying, 'Remember Noriega, remember Allende, remember Lumumba. Remember, remember, remember.' There's a long list of guys who did not go along and were either overthrown or assassinated ... They may say it more subtly, but the message is very clear."

Two years later, a huge popular uprising forced Gutierrez from office. Now an interim government awaits elections for a new leader. Within a few days of that election, says Perkins, another "economic hit man" will return with another ultimatum.

With his tales of hit men, assassinations and coups, Perkins, now 60, sounds as if he has just slipped off a grassy knoll and landed on the deck of his waterfront home in West Palm Beach, Florida. But for him this is no conspiracy theory. The hit men he refers to are not metaphorical. "I mean literally and physically they will walk into your office," he tells me. And he should know - for a decade, Perkins was one of them.

In 1972 Perkins went to see the then dictator of Panama, General Omar Torrijos. Torrijos was a nationalist who was eager to wrest control of the Panama Canal from the US. Perkins went in to read him the riot act and came out with what sounded like an agreement. Some years later, Torrijos started talking to the Japanese about building a larger, sea-level canal for Panama that would have undermined American influence and corporate interests in the area. One night in 1981 Torrijos died when his Twin Otter aircraft crashed under mysterious circumstances. Perkins is convinced he was killed by US interests who placed a bomb on the plane. Had he lived, Perkins writes in his book, Confessions Of An Economic Hit Man, "He would have served as a role model for a generation of leaders in the Americas, Africa and Asia - something the CIA, the NSA [National Security Agency] and the EHMs [economic hit men] could not allow."

Economic hit men resort to such heavy-handed tactics, says Perkins, only when all other means of leverage have failed. The rest of the time they would employ a mixture of bribery, sex, flattery, prostitution, distortion, extortion, abduction and invasion to get their own way. "Sex was a very common tool used by economic hit men," Perkins says. "It was not uncommon for us to seduce wives of oil company executives because that was a way of gaining information and learning things about their husbands."

If the threats of the economic hit men don't persuade, the "jackals" will come in to make good on them. The jackals, says Perkins, are the CIA-sanctioned heavy mob who foment coups and revolutions, murder, abduction and assassination. And when the jackals fail, as was the case in Iraq, then the military goes in.

Economic hit men, Perkins says, work entirely separately but completely in concert with the state. Perkins never once reported to a US government agency - but he is in little doubt that the US government always knew and approved of what he was doing. His task, he says, was to ensure that US business interests came out on top, regardless of who won an election, and that the American wealthy were further enriched, regardless of who was impoverished as a result.

In his role as an analyst for the international consulting firm Main, Perkins worked for what he calls the "corporatocracy" - global big business. His first task was to persuade foreign governments to take large loans for huge engineering and construction projects conducted by US companies such as Halliburton and Bechtel. To achieve this, Perkins produced reports that would vastly exaggerate the benefit such projects would bring to the nation's economic development, thereby making it vulnerable.

Then, he writes, "I would work to bankrupt the countries that received those loans so that they would be for ever beholden to their creditors, and so they would present easy targets when we needed favours, including military bases, UN votes, or access to oil and other natural resources."

For all of this, Perkins earned a substantial wage and through his 20s and 30s lived large on a lavish expense account. Based in Boston, his work took him to, among other places, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador, Iran, Colombia.

But misgivings that he harboured from the outset grew with his salary. At 36, Perkins was about to be made the youngest partner in Main's history - a promotion that would have made him a millionaire by the age of 40. Fearing the seductive lure of his new position, he decided he had to leave.

He says it was like having an angel and a devil sitting on each shoulder and calling him in different directions. "I had both these guys shouting at me and I could turn either way I wanted. I couldn't turn away from the good conscience. It kept whispering in my ear. But I could live according to the bad conscience because everybody around me was."

The devil kept waving his wallet, but gradually Perkins retreated. He quit Main in 1980, although for several years after he could not resist continuing to accept freelance consulting jobs.

His recruitment into the world of economic hit men sounds like a scene from a James Bond movie. The story began with him as a young man looking for information about Kuwait in a Boston library shortly after he had started working for Main. An attractive, older woman named Claudine, whom he had never seen before, sat opposite him and slid over a book with the precise information he was looking for and her business card. "I've been asked to help in your training," she said.

Perkins, who was married at the time, started an affair with Claudine, who simultaneously inveigled him into the world of economic hit men. "At the time I thought she really cared so deeply for me," says Perkins. "But, of course, now I see it was part of her job."

A few years earlier, he had sought deferment of going to fight in Vietnam by applying for a job at the National Security Agency. After several interviews and a day of psychological profiling, he was offered a job to train as a spy. He never took the job in the end, joining the peace corps instead, but he is convinced that the results of his NSA tests identified him as having the ideal insecurities to be inducted as an economic hit man. Raised by Calvinist parents in an environment as emotionally cold as a New England winter, his vulnerability was not difficult to find. Claudine was there to finish off the job. "She was amazingly effective at what she did and she learned from my NSA tests that I had the three big weaknesses of modern culture - that is, the weakness for money, power and sex - and she exploited all of them. In many respects, she appealed to all my fantasies. And she started by giving me the sexual fantasy."

Her induction speech was melodramatic and definitive. "You're not alone," she told him. "We're a rare breed in a dirty business. No one can know about your involvement - not even your wife. I'll be very frank with you, teach you all I can during the next weeks, then you'll have to choose. Your decision is final. Once you're in, you're in for life."

Claudine disappeared almost as mysteriously as she appeared, leaving Perkins to make his wildly extravagant forecasts designed to corrupt and bankrupt developing nations. He never needed Big Brother or Sister, or any more instructions, after that. He knew the template he had to work to and, so long as he fulfilled the task, everyone was happy and he was handsomely rewarded.

"I wasn't making bucketloads of money," he says. "For many of those years I was making a decent salary, but it certainly wasn't what lawyers were making. But I had phenomenal expense accounts. I was living like a king. I was travelling first class, best hotels, best food, women always there. I could throw money around, but my salary wasn't that great."

He was fully aware of the consequences of his actions. "I knew that building electric power plants probably would increase the gross national product in a country, even if not by as much as I was predicting, but I also knew that it wouldn't help the majority of poor people in these countries because they didn't even have a light bulb. It doesn't matter what the hell GNP does in these countries, because it's not going to help the poor people. So I knew the promise wasn't true."

But Perkins carried on anyway. His conscience piqued him, but with all the positive reinforcement around him, it couldn't quite stop him in his tracks. "There is a great line in the new Harry Potter movie where he says we can do the right thing or the easy thing. And I could do the easy thing for me because it was lucrative and enjoyable... I was being invited to speak at Harvard and other universities around the world on these subjects. I was being patted on the back by Robert McNamara, the president of the World Bank. I could convince myself that I was doing a good thing."

But morality would eventually trump venality. Damascene moments are rare in real life. David Brock, the former rightwing muckracker who made a career trashing the Clintons and Anita Hill, and later repented, wrote: "As a young zealot, I disciplined myself to ignore the soft tug of my own conscience and see only what I was supposed to see." And so it was with Perkins. But it was less of a blinding flash of light than an evolutionary process that would eventually turn him inside out - among other things, it sounds as though he just got bored and started growing up.

"I was burned out and I really wanted to start a new life," he says. "There had been a lot of women, but that had also cost me a marriage. I had found a new woman [his current wife] and I was very fond of her. And I was no longer going to live this life of travelling and big expense accounts. I was spending all this time in the office, deciding who gets raises and who sits in the window seat. I had become a top-level manager."

None the less, leaving was an "awful wrench" which left him in a daze. "I spent the next couple of weeks going down to the Quincy market in Boston and I would sit there on one of the benches reading Shakespeare. I was lost and didn't know what to do with myself."

He was rescued from his disorientation by a call from Main. A client had said they would sign up for some work only if he were leading the team. "I jumped and then, as I'm falling through midair thinking, 'Holy shit, what have I done?' a trampoline appears at the bottom and it's my own company again. That got me back into it again. Not exactly back in the game again. Not doing true EHM stuff. Not building empire. But back on the circuit working for corporate America."

It was during this period that Perkins founded an alternative energy company, Independent Power Systems. He remarried and moved to West Palm Beach, on Florida's hurricane-prone coastline, where he will interrupt his descriptions of coups and assassinations to catch the cry of an osprey. The energy project lasted 10 years, until 1990, when he sold his company and turned his attention to working with indigenous Indians throughout the Americas and on protecting the environment. He wrote five books, about indigenous cultures, shamanism, ecology and sustainability. The front page of his website reads, "John Perkins: Dedicated to changing the world."

By then he had become active, if not an activist, in antiglobalisation campaigns. He believes the protests that target the World Trade Organisation meetings and other showcase events of international capital, such as the demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, have a big impact. The guardians of global capital are powerful, he says, but they are also mortal and emotionally vulnerable.

"Corporate executives are fear-driven," he says. "They are afraid of many things. One of them is competition. One of them is not making enough money. One of them is not making as much money as somebody else. They're fearful. They're fearful of their board of directors, they're fearful of the next quarterly report, the bottom line, the price of stock. They live in constant fear of what tomorrow is going to bring. That includes being fearful of anything that is critical of their corporations or their way of life. So I think that demonstrations have a very powerful effect. The corporate executives are going to stand there and tell you that isn't true. But once again they are operating from a place of fear. Many of the corporate heads today grew up during the 1960s and the anti-Vietnam demonstrations, and they saw the power of that."

With the help of just one thinly veiled threat to keep his mouth shut, Perkins kept his vow of silence regarding the work of economic hit men until September 11 changed his mind.

"Back then, we never conceived of the US being attacked by someone who was living in a cave in Afghanistan," he says. "It was a lot more subtle a world in my time. We never worried about Che attacking us. We did worry about Cuba for a while, but that was the only thing we worried about. Now the stakes have changed radically... Bush is a great catalyst. I think he's pushing us to the edge."

It was then that Perkins wrote his memoir. The book was lionised by the alternative media on publication in the US and took off, despite being ignored by the mainstream media. "The New York Times and the other papers never mentioned the book except on their bestseller list," he says. Today, as he embarks on a book tour, he fears "a crazy man" could shoot him. "It's always a crazy man," he says. "John Kennedy was killed by a crazy man, Robert Kennedy was killed by a crazy man, Martin Luther King was killed by a crazy man. It's the crazy man who walks up to you after you've done a reading at a book store and sticks a gun in your gut and shoots you, and then he gets taken off some place and probably killed by somebody else or put in a straitjacket, and nobody really knows what really happened."

During the height of McCarthyism, President Eisenhower said that even when former communists confessed and turned on their former comrades, he could never quite trust them. They are "such liars and cheats", he told his attorney general, "that even when they apparently recant and later testify against someone else for his communist convictions, my first reaction is to believe that the accused person must be a patriot."

Perkins certainly has the zeal of a convert. "America has to change," he says. "The people of South America have sent a very strong message to America and to the world. Latin Americans have sent us a message. Middle Easterners have sent us a message. The voters of the US have to take the next step. It's up to us now. We must take this seriously. We're a nation of people that represents 5% of the world's population and consumes 25% of the world's resources. Simple mathematics will tell you that you can't sell that model to China or Africa or India. But we don't want to hear that. Because if you're one of the 5%, then you're leading a damned good life. Even the poorest among us are leading a much better life than the much less poor in the rest of the world."

At times it seems as though Perkins is using the knowledge he acquired as an economic hit man to assuage the wrongs he committed in the past. "We outlawed slavery back in the 1860s in the US, but we've taken it abroad. If you were to tell an executive at Monsanto or Nike or Wal-Mart that we use slave labour, they would say, 'No, we're paying them $2 a day. That's better than anyone else around them.' But the truth is we always paid slaves. Slaves on the plantations got free room and board. That's more than what most of these people in these other countries are getting; $2 a day probably doesn't buy their families room and board."

At other times it sounds as if Perkins is overcompensating. "Terrorism is a very poor choice of words," he says referring to the terror attacks of September 11. "I am in no way condoning the actions of a man like Osama bin Laden, who killed thousands of mostly innocent people. But, on the other hand, a lot of the people around the world who, in one way or another, support what we call terrorist movements, are basically very nationalistic people. They are fighting for their families, they're fighting for survival, they're fighting for their lives."

Mostly innocent?

"I have no doubt that there were people in the World Trade Centre who weren't innocent and who were part of this whole [economic] process," he says. "But they were probably a very small proportion of the people who were there. Most of the people killed there were innocent."

His analysis of how the "corporatocracy" works hand in glove with the American government to keep profits high and developing nations in check is entirely plausible. Much of it, particularly in Central and South America, is more or less a matter of public record. It's the details - crazy men, a seductress with a dossier on him - that are hard to swallow.

It wouldn't be the first time a powerful country such as the US has gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve its power. Tales of German and Italian nationals (to name but a few) being picked up on the street by the CIA and whisked to third countries where they are tortured, interrogated and then released months later without charge, beggar belief. But they are true. On the other hand, this wouldn't be the first time a good argument and compelling story has been embellished for effect. There is simply no way of knowing.

Softly spoken and articulate, Perkins does not talk like a braggart. You don't get the impression that he's looking for the dramatic and self-serving response to a question.

"The overall scheme is not a conspiracy," he says. "The corporatocracy is ourselves - we make it happen - which, of course, is why most of us find it difficult to stand up and oppose it. Conspiracy means doing something illegal by definition. The overall scheme is not. But within the overall schemes there are plenty of conspiracies going on."

Unlike most men of his age and generation, corporate, anticorporate or otherwise, Perkins listens and engages. In short, he is very believable; it's his story that is challenging. One wonders, for example, why a newly elected leader would need an economic hit man to come into his office and read him the riot act when capitalism delivers a pretty clear warning all by itself. When it was obvious that the leftwing Workers Party leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva would be elected president of Brazil in 2002, the invisible hand of the market picked him up by the scruff of the neck and slapped most of the socialism out of him. In the three months between his winning the vote and being sworn in, the currency had plummeted by 30%, $6bn in hot money had left the country and some agencies had given Brazil the highest debt risk ratings in the world.

"We are in government but not in power," said Lula's close aide, Dominican friar Frei Betto. "Power today is global power, the power of the big companies, the power of financial capital."

In short, there was nothing an economic hit man could tell Lula that the Financial Times hadn't said already. Lula had choices, argues Perkins, pointing to Hugo Chávez in Venezuela as an example of a South American leader from a smaller economy who weathered the storm. "Lula had a lot more control than he admits to having," he says. "The same thing happened to Lula that happened to Gutierrez - he was read the riot act. Today, they are a lot more crude."

And then there is the small question of why, given Claudine's warnings, he is alive to tell the tale?

"The word's out there," he says. "The book's sold 200,000 copies and is translated into 20 languages. What's getting rid of me going to do?"

In short, whatever the United States gets up to Latin America, democracy has as much to do with it as the USSR's behaviour in Eastern Europe had to do with establishing democracy there.