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Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Blog 76. Was Robert Maxwell just ahead of his time?

Could this budget disaster in-waiting make the Mirror pension scandal look like a drop in the ocean?

Not for nothing is this blog called brown girl OUTSIDE the ring – but even I am astonished at feeling so queasy-uneasy about the much lauded pension rule changes announced last week by Giddy Osborne.
Do we still not understand that ‘choice’ is the standard political euphemism for ‘we’re not going to fix the system so it’s everyone for themselves’?
It’s a classic vicious circle. The measure is brought in because annuity returns are crap. Annuities are crap because interest rates are crap. Interest rates are crap because of the financial mess caused by poor regulation of the financial industry. We are not out of the mess yet nor has ineffectual regulation been forced to cowboy up. Liberalism, however, is being applied to pension savings. In other words – we know the man-eating Lake Placid size crocodiles are out there untamed, hungrier than ever but we’re letting the wildebeest loose from their sanctuary anyway. WHAT CAN POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
Do we still pretend not to know that ‘we trust people to make the right decisions’ means ‘we wash our hands of this – and anyway we won’t be in power when the chickens come home to roost (and find they have to live in a hole in the ground)’.
Have we learnt nothing?
Do the government not listen to Money Box on Radio 4? I don’t just mean to the whinings of the Worried Wealthy but the other people; the ones who keep giving their 40 years’ savings to Nigerian princes, Ponsy schemes and non-existent plots of land on the moon?
Let’s just reel back a little.
What this government and previous incumbents have shown us is that they can’t or will not regulate the financial industry effectively. Add to that the voracious need of big ‘C’ capitalism for ever new sources of its life blood – easy money – and you have a subterranean monster eating away at the heart of society, a barely hidden insatiable parasite. We’ve administered some poultices, but it’s there and it’s insatiable.
(I know – the croc morphed into a sort of alien parasite – get over it)
What has choice meant in terms the NHS? We haven’t the will to sort the problems and anyway we are now doubled over with PPI (profit priority indigestion) so we’ll talk about choice – which, as has been said before in this blog – means those with the sharpest elbows can get themselves to where the service still works.
State schools are staggering and stumbling through a maze of half baked schemes – a warren of dead ends from academies to free schools, schools funded by businesses. Schools are demoralised, slated by offsted or overcrowded because they climbed the offsted ladder. Sometimes, it seems, the books are cooked or improvements made by selective offering of exam options. Is it too much to suggest that we simply need good teachers, classrooms that don’t leak and schools with playing fields that haven’t been sold off?
Back to pensions.
As the welfare state wobbles under the weight of ever increasing responsibility, never has there been a time when that precious provision needs to be so carefully tended. We are an old country and getting older. The welfare state was a vehicle meant to transport us from cradle to grave. With the journey getting longer, people who want a smooth ride may need more than one spare tyre.  
And – with a flourish – Giddy Osborne announces that people will be free to spend their private pension pots how they like because people are to be trusted with their own money. No new fiscal safeguards. Tadah! And Westminster plus the majority of the media applaud this. And New Labour agrees. And it’s bollocks.
The answer to the pensions problem (as with banking and insurance and mortgages and investments) has always been to properly regulate the financial industry with real sanctions for misconduct. This announcement is a tacit admission of failure. It is also an admission that the big financial disaster that got us into this mess – where the world of money now revolves round the spenders not the savers - is here to stay for the foreseeable future.
This budget bonkersness is a boon for the con man. It’s Christmas all round all year for the Salmonella cruises and the manufacturers of silly cars. Listening to the commentators extolling the virtues of ‘ordinary working people’ spending their own money, one thing is clear – they have no idea, NO IDEA what it is like to have never had to deal with a serious amount of money. If you’ve always had a nice car and regular holidays it may be easy to see that you would never be tempted to choose that sort of quick fix over longer term comfort. If you have had plenty to do with money advisers throughout your life it’s not easy to see how someone would be conned by a smooth talking arse in a suit. But people are regularly conned and / or persuaded to make stupid decisions with their money. It happens all the time but, until now, not with their pensions.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Blog 75. Lynndie England - a Feminists’ dilemma?

War is very much a feminist issue and not just because of the power gap between the testosterone fuelled madness that leads to war and those caught in the cross fire. Nor is it just an issue for the feminist camp because of the way rape is routinely used as a weapon of war. The increasing involvement of women soldiers on the frontline has opened up dark corners and has possibly pitted feminism against some of its assumed bedfellows – pacifism and small ‘l’ liberalism.

Nowhere is this dilemma more clearly personified than in the figure of Lynndie England. If this name rings unpleasant bells but you can’t quite place it – think of those horrendous pictures of Iraqi prisoners being abused, tortured and humiliated in Abu Ghraib during the Iraq invasion. US private Lynndie England is the face of that nightmare. She is the painfully young-looking soldier guerning over the pyramid of naked prisoners and she is the juvenile-looking t-shirted soldier with a naked prisoner on the floor on the end of a leash (and they weren’t the worst pictures).

There was little surprise when latterly the general view finally coagulated round the truth that the invasion of Iraq was illegal. It is interesting that, as we mark the centenary of the outbreak of WWI this year, the more politicians try to harness some frisky jingoism – the more the voices of the ordinary soldiers sing out strong from the mass of graves “what a waste”. But whilst the, often illiterate, foot soldiers of that time were duped by their warring masters, Lynndie England was duped at every level. From the system that failed to educate her to a close and senior soldier who clearly had emotional and sexual influence over her to the hawks who peddled the nonsense that justified attack, right up to her president and Commander in Chief who seemed to want to show daddy Bush what a big boy he was – she was conned.

To this day she proposes no penitence, sticking to her mantra that they were “the enemy”. Even that, as we now know, was wrong. George W in fact was quite good pals with Sadam until it no longer suited him to be. The war was cooked up between Bush and Blair – and depending on how you view the current global blood bath, often underpinned by a Muslim / western-Christian divide – would it would be too far-fetched to suggest that those two gentlemen (I use the term loosely) kicked off WW3?

So why would a pacifist like me sense an uncomfortable conundrum when it comes to Lynndie England? Firstly, there is a general moral problem in convicting soldiers of war-crimes when the two main and most senior perpetrators remain unpunished. In trying to explain that one an analogy might help. Imagine a couple of burglars – the two top dogs in the hood – decide to break into a house. They enlist a group of children (because the children can get in and they can’t – come on you’ve seen Oliver Twist) and the children have to obey them. During the burglary the children damage things in the house. How would we feel if the children were then captured and punished while the two burglars not only got off scot free but went off to live free and prosperous?

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that our own favourite war criminal – Mr. Perma-tan-Tony himself, is not only at liberty but estimated to be now worth around £75million.

As a pacifist I find the idea that there are right and wrong ways to slaughter people bizarre (see blog 44. Killing them Softly). But where an invasion is dubious, troops go into the hell pits of conflict with a psychological profile even more warped than usual. And Private Lynndie England was a woman in a mess who was thrown into one of the ugliest messes in our time.

Lynndie England, who joined the army in her teens from her trailer-trash background, first became involved with Charles Graner – 14 years her senior in age and senior to her in rank – in 2003.

It’s a well circulated idea that the group of soldiers arriving at the crowded Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 were led to believe that the ritual humiliation of prisoners was a technique that was sanctioned by their commanders. It was used as a means of ‘softening up’ prisoners and had been in use long before they arrived. That is not an excuse – it’s just interesting information.

Garner (convicted ring-leader of the abuses which came to light) was in the habit of taking explicit pictures of Lynndie when he had sex with her and encouraged her to pose with the prisoners in the manner described above. Graner got Lynndie pregnant (though he disowned her and even initially denied paternity) while also sexually involved with one of her friends and fellow soldiers.

There is no way of denying that part of what shocked about these particular abuses, involving Lynndie England, was her gender. There were worse abuses, including the slaughter and rape of women and children by rogue soldiers but we almost expect that in war. If we don’t we should by now. But we cannot deny that – even in war – we expect better behaviour from women. Maybe we have to accept that when a male and female soldier stand side by side – each with a weapon – there remains something unequal about them that requires our questioning.


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Monday, 10 March 2014

Blog 74. BT v My Bottom - in the County Court!!!

Rant taken down - too much space taken up on my lovely blog with BT crap customer care bother. Normal BGOTR service will be resumed on Tuesday - the BT episode may get boiled down to a cartoon by then - which is all it deserves.
cartoon replacements posted - go to usual place for cartoons - click on either the orange 'Amanda Baker' in right hand column or 'view my profile' and it will take you to post lists and cartoons

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Blog 73 Wedding Psychosis & Pre-nuptial Agreements

Pre-nuptial agreements and modern wedding psychosis go together like a horse and carriage (as the old saying goes). And it’s most definitely the cart before the horse – nay (neigh!!) it’s the cart without the horse. Or is it a too heavily laden cart and a lame mule or a horse-burger in a shopping cart – or should we stop the analogies there?

Having been through the dreadful ‘D’ myself I would still suggest that if you think you need a pre-nup what you really need is not to get married.
It’s not about being unrealistic concerning relationships but expectation is a powerful thing. Once you boil it down to worries about who gets to keep the dog or the new oven, marriage – which some would argue is a strange archaic concept in any case - is pretty much in the knackers’ yard.
Couple that with the current wedding psychosis, evident at all levels of society, fuelled by women’s mags and the big soap opera which is celebrity life in the 21st century, and you are on a hiding to nothing – going through the desert on a horse with no name.
According to one bridal magazine I had a quick shufty through while waiting for the dentist, the expected cost of a wedding is now around £24k. Having once been to a wedding fare, I still can’t work out how that figure is reached. Before you criticise - everyone should go at least once wedding fare in their life even if there is no one you know getting married. The sense of relief when you leave is worth every second spent inside.
Worse again is that young folk of less than ordinary fiscal means seem to feel they have to do it in the prescribed way. A young acquaintance of mine spent much of last year attending hen do’s (we’ll go into that horror another time) and then weddings. Usually the couples were from ordinary backgrounds with fragile incomes and already burdened with student debt but still there were the stately homes in the background, the ridiculous dresses, the chocolate fountains, sumptuous receptions, jewellery, wedding cakes that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Disney cartoon. Whatever happened to funky weddings? Whatever happened to make-your own dress? Granny made the wedding cake? Friends did the flowers and we all just had a good time?
We’ll leave themed weddings because I feel a migraine brewing.
When I look around my mature married friends there is absolutely no correlation between the amount spent on a wedding and the longevity of the marriage or the quality of the relationship. Though on reflection there may be an inverse relationship!  In fact three of the longest married couples I know with solid relationships that have weathered the storms, eschewed the whole financial meltdown, shop-front, meringue dress, six tier monstrosity events completely. Is that possibly because they were always more focused on the relationship?
My uncle’s in-laws had the distinction a few years back at the ripe old ages of 106 – to have been (then) the longest married couple in Britain – marrying in their late teens. Obviously I did not attend the wedding but I’m pretty sure they managed without a chocolate fountain.
Leaving multi-million dollar celebrity circus weddings to one side (at least they can afford it I suppose and no one expects them to last) this mania for showcase nuptials feels suspiciously like national psychosis? We supposedly know that money doesn’t equate to love so what is going on here? Young people have to get into debt to get educated, to buy a house, even now to get employed as the trend for internships (unpaid work to you and me) seeps in along with zero hours contracts and other work inequities. But getting into debt to get hitched? What is that about?
Tack onto the other end of that scenario the idea of pre-nuptial agreements and doesn’t marriage become ultimately pointless? Pre-nups are legal in America and in their defence, have provided much media entertainment over time. Until now per-nups have been kept at bay here but are now being championed by some law firms.
But if young people are saddled with the idea that they have to get hitched in a blaze of tat with birds of prey flying down the aisle with the rings and flesh spilling out of thousand pound frocks, champagne receptions and manor house settings so that there is nothing of the personality of the families involved but it’s simply a homogenous characterless modern magazine wedding – should pre-nups start with how to divide up the wedding-day debt?

Cartoons are in the usual place and for the people who still can’t find them – for heaven’s sake GO TO THE RIGHT HAND COLUMN AND CLICK ON THE ORANGE ‘Amanda Baker’