Ashes 2015: Third Test Comments Thread

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Ashes 2015: Second Test

I only caught the first two days of the second test because on Day 3 I was flying to Thailand, where I am now.  By the time I arrived, the match was all but over.

Having predicted in my previous post that England would edge this match, I could not have been proven more wrong with Australia trouncing their opponents in a 405 run win.  In doing so, the whole situation between the teams has now flipped 180 degrees: it is England who will go into the next match pondering personnel changes and wondering what went wrong, and Australia who will look to capitalise on a potentially demoralised opposition.  A bigger response to their first test defeat could not have been asked from Australia, and a more pathetic capitulation scarcely imagined from England.

Australia won the match by doing what they do best: winning the toss, putting on a hefty score, and letting their bowlers do the rest.  Had England won the toss things might have gone differently, but they didn’t and if England are going to be considered even a half-decent team they need to learn how to win batting second on a lost toss.  So does Australia, come to think of it: they’re not much better in this department, and neither team seems able to withstand the slightest scoreboard pressure.  If any weakness in Australia’s batting lineup has been masked by Rogers’ and Smith’s brilliant partnership which took the game away from England on Day 1, it is this.

I watched most of that partnership, and it really was a case of brilliant batting as opposed to poor bowling.  Even Shane Warne said Cook’s captaincy and field settings were as varied and attacking as could be expected, and all the commentators said the bowlers had bowled well, especially Broad.  But they came up against what sometimes happens in test matches, two class batsmen who have played themselves in.  I don’t think it was a failure of England’s bowlers and fielders that Australia scored so many runs (Bell’s drop of Smith notwithstanding, but it was a tough chance): they did quite well on Day 2 once they’d gotten rid of Rogers and Smith, and the pitch was very good for batting.

Where England failed completely was in the batting.  True, the extra pace of the Australian bowlers made the ball do much more than it had coming from English paws, but the capitulation of England’s top order was appalling.  Despite the massive run deficit, here was a chance for England to at least show some fight in response and avoid the follow-on figure (which is usually symbolic when playing against Clarke with Warner in the team), and for some of the batsmen over whom there are doubts to prove themselves, namely Lyth, Ballance, and Bell.  Each failed miserably (Root we can give a pass to as he’s done plenty recently and can’t be expected to perform every match) with the exception of Cook, who was batting steadily with Stokes when my plane took off.  If Cook and Stokes can manage to score 96 and 87 respectively, what is the excuse of the rest?  Lack of form and/or talent is my guess, and both Ballance and Bell should be dropped, Root moved up to 3 or 4, and Lyth told that the third test will be his last if he doesn’t score at least something.

If I thought England’s first innings was bad, their second beggars belief.  It’s not that England had any chance of saving the match, but a meaningful partnership or a century would have done wonders for the confidence of the team and was a good opportunity for some out-of-form batsmen to get some time in the middle without – ironically – too much pressure.  Instead we were all out for 103, which handed the Australians not only the match but an enormous psychological victory heading into the third test.

So with England looking certain to make some changes in their batting line-up at Edgbaston, one would expect Australia to be the ones carrying the momentum and seeking a victory.  But as we have seen, much depends on who wins the toss and the state of the pitch.

And on that note, I would like to say that I find all this talk of pitch “doctoring” to be rather tedious.  I have yet to hear a professional groundsman say whether it is even possible to fine-tune an English pitch to nullify Australian bowling let alone whether it has actually been done in the two tests we’ve seen so far.  For all the talk of Cardiff being a “flat” wicket England took 20 wickets with a day to spare, and hours after the Australian media was wailing that England had prepared “a road” at Lord’s Clarke’s bowlers did the same thing in return.  This must be the first time in cricketting history that two test matches each producing a result inside 4 days have generated complaints about lifeless pitches.  What seems to be confusing the Australians is that the English pitches don’t behave like the WACA, but I’m not sure anyone can help them with that.  If there has been a change in the behaviour of English pitches in the past few years it is most likely to do with the improved drainage which allows play to resume much sooner after the inevitable English downpours.  And that’s what we all wanted, wasn’t it?

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Ashes 2015: First Test

Well, it seems the cautious optimism I displayed in my Ashes Preview post was justified: England have thumped Australia in the first test mainly due to their batsmen being able to withstand the Australian bowling attack and the Australian batsmen being crap.

A word which used to get bandied about a lot during the good times under Andy Flower was “businesslike” or “workmanlike”.  England’s success came mainly off the back of serious, concentrated, graft rather than displays of brilliance or raw talent (KP was the exception, hence his reputation).  These terms sum up well the demeanour of the English players during the first test in Cardiff: at stumps at the end of Day 2, Australia were 264/5 in reply to England’s 430 all out.  England had taken wickets at steady intervals all afternoon, putting in considerable effort for each, rather than having one of those moments when Broad or Anderson gets you 3 or 4 in a single spell.  When they interviewed one of the English players as they were walking off the pitch (I forget who it was, mainly because I saw most of the team interviewed over the course of the match) he said they still had a lot of work to do.  Again at the end of Day 3, when it was known they would need to bowl Australia out for under 411 to win the match, the English player interviewed talked of the work ahead.  For the English players, they take the professional aspect literally by talking of each task ahead as a piece of work that they need to get done, in the same way you or I would in the office.  They realise that winning a test match against Australia will require serious work and effort.  This work ethic was evident in the first test, and it paid off.

As I had implied in my preview post, Australia appeared to hit England’s shores believing the media hype that a 5-0 win would be a mere formality.  That they snapped out of this by lunchtime on Day 1 was encouraging, but what surely must be more worrying for them is that they had no Plan B from that point on.  Their whole battle-plan was to rely on Johnson and Starc intimidating the opposition batsmen into giving up their wickets while Siddle and Harris block the scoring from the other end, and it’s been this way for years (with some names changing).  Their batting plan has been to be ultra-aggressive and “get on top of the bowlers” and if this results in a low score, meh the bowlers will make sure we still win.  This approach has been personified by Darren Lehmann whose aggressive style has been lauded by practically everyone, probably because in Australia it works well.

The problem is, Australia are now in England.  It became obvious that the aggressive style wasn’t going to work when the pitch didn’t bounce and England scored 430 in their first innings.  For the first time in a long time Michael Clarke seemed clueless as to what to do, and Lehmann even more so.  Australia were shown to be extremely one-dimensional, and unable to cope with things not going their way.  It is all very well to be snarling, aggressive, and in-your-face when you’re on top, but even a half-decent side needs to be able to dig itself out of a hole when things are going against them, and they failed to do that in this test.

If I was Australian, this is what would worry me the most.  England showed in their 5-0 drubbing that a team can be very much less than the sum of its parts, and Australia will now need to make sure they become a team once again.  This being Australia, you would count on them to do so: they are not half the hardened sportsmen they make themselves out to be, but they are not a bunch of girls’ blouses either.  So you can expect a response from individuals and some better performances at Lord’s this week.  But Lehmann’s comments, summed up below, ought to cause some concern:

Australia’s coach Darren Lehmann has described England’s big victory in the first Test as a “minor hiccup”, and has effectively challenged the Lord’s ground staff to produce a quicker pitch for the second match from Thursday.

Lord’s will be a faster and bouncier pitch that will suit Johnson and Starc more than that of Cardiff, but if he thinks that a slightly better pitch is all that is needed for Australia to claw back the opening loss he is surely mistaken.  England, he might have noticed, also have some reasonably good fast bowlers in Anderson, Broad, and Wood.  A quicker pitch is not going to make them any easier to handle, and is not going to remove the requirement for his batsmen, at some stage, to knuckle down and spend several hours at the crease.  One would hope that Lehmann has realised this.

Many said the first test in Cardiff would be crucial, and it was.  But the second test at Lord’s will be even more crucial for Australia: if things don’t go their way for long periods in this match, and they again don’t come up with a Plan B for how to deal with it, they will have been dangerously exposed as a one-dimensional side who can do hyper-aggression and nothing else and achieve success only when conditions suit.  The series will then be effectively lost.

England, on the other hand, will be unlikely to get ahead of themselves and will retain the workmanlike approach in dealing with the immediate task at hand and then moving onto the next.  England supporters will be hoping Cook scores some runs, Lyth, Ballance, and Bell show more consistency and longevity, and the rest keep on doing exactly what they did in Cardiff.

At the risk of being proved hopelessly wrong, I will stick my neck out and say that an England which is more consistent and familiar with the conditions will beat an improved but still brittle Australian side whose 1 or 2 personnel changes didn’t address the underlying problems.

Finally, thanks to Michael Jennings for the comments, it’s been good!  Anyone else is free to join in.

UPDATE

One of the other things I forgot to mention is the poor manner in which the Australians have managed their wicket-keeping situation.  Despite Brad Haddin’s advancing years, which could hardly have come as a surprise, there appears to have been no effort to groom a replacement.  Normally, one would expect Haddin to have hung up the gloves in the ODI format allowing a successor to be found and prepared for test duties, but Australia continued with Haddin right through the World Cup.  This is nice for Haddin, and his form may have warranted his selection, but with Haddin’s withdrawal from the squad due to “personal reasons” Australia now have the NSW second choice keeper (Haddin is No. 1) making debut when 1-0 down in an overseas Ashes.  Even Australia’s most ardent supporters must agree that this isn’t ideal.  I can’t help but feel sentiment and Haddin’s popularity with other senior team members kept him in the ODI and test squads at the expense of grooming a successor.

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What £3.7bn per year gets you

In a rather confused article entitled The Arrogance of Power, the BBC gives us this gem:

Some European countries have no [Presidential] term limits, including Italy, Switzerland and Russia.

According to the Russian constitution, Article 81 Clause 3:

One and the same person cannot hold the office of the President of the Russian Federation for more than two terms running.

Good journalism there, BBC.

Having started talking about African presidents hanging onto power beyond their constitutionally determined limits, the article then veers off into an opinion piece by one Lord Owen, former British foreign secretary and leader of the Social Democtratic Party in the 1980s who argues:

by the time they have been in power for many years, some leaders tend to become arrogant, unwilling to listen and overly optimistic that their decisions will produce good results.

“Eight years is enough,” Lord Owen told Newshour Extra.

“Blair is the classic example of hubris and it had profound effects because he reinforced the hubris of Bush and Bush reinforced Blair’s and these two made terrible mistakes.”

I assume that Lord Owen is referring to the decision to invade Iraq in February 2003, which was made during Bush’s first presidential term.  Bush assumed the presidency in January 2001, meaning he’d been in power all of 2 years when the invasion was launched.  Blair had been in power 7 years at the time of the invasion, and although Lord Owen is quite correct in his assessment of the man, even a casual observer would have spotted that he had been this way right from the start: he didn’t need 7 years in which to develop arrogance and the idea he was on some sort of holy crusade.  This is just another excuse for some washed-up Lefty to have a swipe about the Iraq War: they were quite okay with Blair’s arrogance and hubris until he did something they disagreed with.  Naturally, Lord Owen takes the opportunity to have swipe at “bankers” as well:

Lord Owen believes acquired hubris is not limited to politicians:

“It exists in bankers,” he says.

“If you look at the roots of the 2008-9 crisis you see in many major banks that their chief executives were making decisions based on a lot of the characteristics of somebody suffering from hubris syndrome.”

So in an article of the arrogance of power and hubristic behaviour, the best examples the BBC gives us are Bush and “bankers”.  The absolute clusterfuck that is the Euro project and the catastrophe unfolding in Greece warrants nary a mention.

Then last week we had the BBC report on the resignation of Ellen Pao, CEO of Reddit:

Ms Pao had been the subject of intense criticism over her handling of the site, one of the web’s most visited, since taking over late last year.

At no point does the BBC mention that Pao’s appointment to Reddit came in the middle of her highly-publicised lawsuit against her previous employers for discrimination and harassment, which she subsequently lost, and that many predicted that this appointment would be a car-crash from the beginning.

The argument against scrapping the BBC is that the quality of news reporting available to the British public would suffer.  I’m trying to think how.

Posted in Media, Politics | 7 Comments

Ashes 2015: Preview and Predictions

Okay, the Ashes are upon us again with the first test kicking off tomorrow.  As is customary around these parts, I will weigh in with my uninformed, narrow views as and when I think I have something to add.

Many Australian pundits (including former players) are predicting a 5-0 stroll as per the last series in Australia.  This is monumentally stupid if for no other reason than the English weather can normally be relied upon to force a draw somewhere.  What I have yet to figure out is whether this is the usual Australian media and public gobbing-off, or whether this is what the actual team members believe.  If the latter, then Australia are in deep trouble already: cricket is a funny game, and has a habit of knocking some reality into those who demonstrate undue hubris.  Look at the expectations of the English team in the last Ashes, for example.  Supreme confidence shattered permanently after a single morning at the Gabba.  Test cricket is good like that.  I was watching some Ashes re-runs the other night on Sky, and one thing caught my attention: even the great Australian team of the early 2000s used to spend sessions being pummeled, with Shane Warne bowling pies, full-tosses, and wides and Glenn McGrath pitching short and wide from the other end and being dispatched to the boundary with ease.  But in other moments of the game, they pulled it all back.  In other words, even the best teams need to work pretty hard for a win, not just turn up on the back of a reputation.

So let’s assume the Australian team is a bit more sober than its fans and is going to put some effort in.  What can we expect?

First England.  Facing Tim Southee and Trent Boult at their very best with the red ball last month will have done the English batsmen no harm whatsoever, even if some – Ballance and Bell – didn’t cope with it too well.  In terms of preparation for facing potentially devastating spells of fast, swing bowling this was probably as good as it gets.  For reasons I’ll explain in a minute, this area is where the Ashes will be lost or won for England.  Our batting line-up is packed with talent right down the order; the only questions are whether they are good enough to handle the Australian bowling and whether Ballance and Bell will regain their previous form.  You would back Bell to score some runs at some point in this series, even if he isn’t as consistent as he was in the previous home Ashes when he single-handedly kept in England in the contest.  He has too much talent and experience to keep getting ducks, although the selectors might lose patience if he’s not produced the goods and England are 2-0 down going into Trent Bridge.  Ballance is more of a worry: if he cannot reliably bat at No. 3 he will find himself sent back to County Cricket in pretty short order and a replacement drafted in or Root pushed up the order.  On Ballance (see what I did there?), he is probably England’s most worrying link in the batting chain.  I am confident Cook will score runs, as will Root, and as will everyone else down the order at some point.  Stokes, Buttler, Ali can all swing a bat.  But these guys will not win matches on their own, and it is crucial for England that these explosive players arrive at the crease when there are at least 250-300 on the board.  And for that, we need Cook, Lyth, Ballance, Root or Bell to score at least a century with two of the others making substantial contributions.

You would back them to do that – if they can force the Australian bowlers into fifth and sixth spells.  And that’s a big “if”.  Australia have had very little practice at the long form of the game of late: fresh from a World Cup and IPL, they cruised through two pathetically truncated test matches against the West Indies before coming to England where they have faced county teams for their warm-up matches.  As New Zealand showed when they arrived on English shores, it takes a test or two to adjust to the Duke ball and the longer spells.  The Australian bowlers will surely adapt, but it is vital that England keep them out long enough to force them into longer spells and late-session bowling against set batsmen.  England have tried to do this in the past by blocking for eternity, waiting out maiden after maiden, but this proved to be disastrous in the last Ashes.  England simply have to score runs off the Australian quicks, or the series will be over before we know it.  It is a daunting task, but not an impossible one.  Ryan Harris will not be playing, Mitchell Johnson has struggled a little in the warm-up games and doesn’t have a great record in England, and the hype being placed on Hazelwood as the new McGrath after only a handful of games might prove to be his downfall if he starts getting clubbed around a bit.  All eyes are on Mitchell Starc, who is capable of destroying an entire batting line-up in a single spell, but there will be periods where he hasn’t quite found his line and length and England need to take advantage of these and force Clarke into a more defensive field.  If England can somehow tire the Aussie bowlers, and put on 300+ runs each innings, they’ll be in with a real chance.

Why? Because the Australian batting looks vulnerable.  In the previous Ashes, the Australian 5th batsman was exposed to the new ball in almost every innings, the top order having collapsed.  Each time they relied upon the tail wagging and the bowlers cleaning out England’s batsmen cheaply, which they duly did.  But this is a risky strategy, especially away from home.  Warner doesn’t cope well with sideways movement, Rogers is dangerous but is pushing on a bit and can normally be relied upon to get himself out cheaply every other innings, and the rest – especially Watson and Marsh – are inconsistent.  Clarke is a class act but has been injured lately, so he perhaps shouldn’t be relied upon to shore up a collapsing innings.  Haddin doesn’t do so well in England as Australia and, like Voges, is also pushing on.  The real dangerman is Smith, who is young, fit, and extremely talented (as well as being extremely likeable).  In previous series, Australia’s bowlers have been so effective that their batsmen have only needed 250-300 or so each innings to secure a match-winning total.  If England can somehow get even a modest 300+ total, especially if batting first, it will be interesting to see how Australia’s batsmen cope.  They are simply not used to facing down massive scoreboard pressure, and this is where they are most vulnerable.

That said, there are a few other worrying signs for England.  First and foremost among these is our lack of an international-standard spinner.  Much as though I like Moeen Ali, and also Rashid, neither are (yet) match-winning spinners of the sort that would trouble Australia.  Lyon isn’t particularly good, other than the fact that he has amassed more wickets than any other Australian off-spinner and has had England’s number for quite some time.  In other words, he’s plenty good enough.  He’ll not be the difference between the two sides, but he’ll certainly contribute to it if England’s spinners cannot get into their game.  England’s seam bowling looks good, but if past performances are anything to go by we are far too reliant on Jimmy Anderson.  Broad is brilliant about once every three matches, which is just not good enough.  If he fails to back up Jimmy, we’ll lose.  Mark Wood is an exciting prospect, but is unproven and his pace might quickly drop off as the sessions, matches, and series grind on.  But if he picks up some big wickets early on, he might end up having a storming series.  Next, England really need to once and for all figure out how to deal with a tail.  Time and again English fans have watched their bowlers reduce a side to 190-7 using good-length bowling targeting the top of off stump and then seen the last three batsmen plunder another 180 runs of short-pitched rubbish.  If Trevor Bayliss can manage one thing in his first few weeks in the job, it ought to be teaching the English bowlers how to remove a tail, or at least stop them from scoring like it’s a T20.  By contrast, the Australians usually skittle the England tail for about 15 runs.  Finally, England need to get a grip of their catching.  They are excellent in the field in terms of balls chased down and getting it back into the keeper, but they have put down a lot of slip catches in their recent tests against New Zealand and the West Indies.  This might not be a problem against the likes of Watson and Warner who can be relied upon to give you another chance in the next over, but against Clarke or Smith this will be fatal.  Bayliss needs to address this pronto.

Regarding Bayliss, I expect we will see his influence more in Tests 3-5 rather than the first two or three.  He will need time to figure out the team in the same way Lehmann did when he took over Australia 4 years ago.  Hopefully he will at least have instilled a new mentality in the England team, similar to that adopted by the ODI side with impressive results.  England have some positives: Root, Wood, Stokes, Buttler should all be worth watching.  Of Cook’s captaincy, the less said the better.

So what do I think?  Australian’s better bowling, captaincy, and and overall experience giving them the series 3-1, with 1 game drawn and England winning the 4th or 5th test.  That’s the realistic view.  The optimistic view is England winning unexpectedly in Cardiff due to Australia’s bowlers not being able to find their rhythm, and going on to win the series 2-1.  Whatever happens, I am sure England will at least win sessions this series: we didn’t even manage that last time.

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More on American Gun Control

In the summer of 2000 I found myself sat at the counter of a small bar somewhere on the coast of Virginia, USA.  The barman, a man in his 40s with long hair and a beard, was friendly enough and we were chatting (the place wasn’t busy).  I don’t remember what we talked about and I would have otherwise forgotten being there were it not for one thing he said regarding Britain:

“Well, you guys just need to get the fuck out of Ireland.”

I wasn’t particularly annoyed by the remark – dumbassed comments on the Northern Irish situation were common enough back home – but it remained with me as a perfect example of somebody passing a remark on a highly complex and protracted foreign situation which revealed almost total ignorance and should best be ignored.  Which is what I did.

I was reminded of this episode last week in the wake of the shootings in South Carolina, when herds of British and Australians, led by that idiot Piers Morgan and backed up by the comedian John Oliver, took to the internet to launch both criticism and advice at America which can be summed up as follows:

1) Americans are stupid.

2) Ban all guns now.

When it comes to foreigners talking about American gun laws, there seems to be an inverse relationship between passion and knowledge of the subject.  Many of those foaming at the mouth, who confess they consider this issue to be the gravest America faces, were unaware that gun laws vary considerably from state to state.  Others claimed the issue of gun control is one that has never been debated in the US, leading one to wonder how the Federal Government, 50 states, and the District of Columbia managed to pass legislation on the subject.  As Wikipedia tells us:

Policy at the Federal level is/has been governed by the Second Amendment, National Firearms Act, Gun Control Act of 1968, Firearm Owners Protection Act, Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act, Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, and the Domestic Violence Offender Act. Gun policy in the U.S. has been revised many times with acts such as the Firearm Owners Protection Act, which loosened provisions for gun sales while also strengthening automatic firearms law.[94] At the local and state level gun laws such as handgun bans have been overturned by the Supreme Court in cases such as District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago.These cases hold that an individual person has a right to possess a firearm. Columbia v. Heller only addressed the issue on Federal enclaves, while McDonald v. Chicago addressed the issue as relating to the individual states.

No debate or control, indeed.

The prevailing opinion appears to be that everyone and anyone is able to carry any kind of weapon freely, and hence they have all these shootings in the USA.  They think that these shootings are less common in other countries because they have tighter gun control, hence the solution is to implement a nationwide ban.  What advocates of a ban rarely acknowledge is that even European countries have not banned handguns: ownership, although subject to obtaining a permit and other heavy restrictions, is not illegal in the UK, France, Germany, Norway, and Italy (at which point I stopped looking).  Regarding France:

France has no limit on magazine capacity and no assault weapon ban, other than that you need a permit for category one semi-automatics.

And Italy:

All private firearms must be registered at the local police department within “72 hours”, as specified by law, after purchase or transfer, although this limit goes from the time the firearm is actually taken to the place where it is to be registered (for example, the firearm may be bought at a time and withdrawn after a week from the retailer; only then the weapon will require the registration).

Citizens are allowed to own:

  • up to three common firearms (usually handguns, but all firearms not using hunting calibers fall into this category, such as 10-gauge shotguns, or some .22 rimfire pistols and rifles);
  • up to six weapons that have been classified as manufactured for shooting sports by the National Proof House;
  • an unlimited number of hunting weapons (both rifles and shotguns);

A concealed carry license allows a citizen to carry a handgun for personal defense; this license is usually much harder to obtain than the other two firearm licenses, must be renewed yearly (while the hunting and shooting sports licences are valid for 6 years), and the applicant has to provide a valid reason to carry a concealed gun (e.g. a salesperson of valuable goods such as jewelry).

The fact that gun ownership is permitted across Europe is something rarely acknowledged by those Europeans who want to see American guns banned.  How many commentators do you hear saying “there is absolutely no reason for anyone to own an assault rifle” in the context of American gun ownership, but never once mention France?

In short, the gap between America and Europe when it comes to gun control laws is wide, but not half as wide as gun control advocates make out.  When it comes to actual gun ownership, the gap is indeed very wide, which may be because of the restrictions in Europe but is more likely to be because, for reasons related to culture, history, and geography, Americans simply want to own more guns that Europeans.  It does not follow that by introducing European-style gun laws that Americans will turn their backs on guns, and their number decline amongst the law-abiding.  So what a lot of the criticism comes down to is that Americans are stupid for wanting to own a gun, because Europeans don’t see a need for them.

Nevertheless, the complete ban solution, so the narrative goes, is so obvious that only morons cannot see it.  Hence we get Facebook posts along the lines of:

3,000 people killed in 9/11 = war

32,000 people killed per year by guns = NOTHING

Which gets reposted by what appear to be adults.

Gun deaths in the US, or anywhere else, can be broken down into separate categories:

  • General criminality
  • Killing sprees
  • Self-defence
  • Accidents
  • Suicides

According to Wikipedia, there were 8,855 firearm related homicides in the USA.  I’ve not been able to find a breakdown of this figure which would show us how many of these are attributed to general criminality, but despite the regularity of noodle-armed omega males going on killing sprees in the past decade or so, the numbers killed in these events do not run into the hundreds, let alone thousands.  Ditto for self-defence.  Therefore, most firearms homicides in the US are a result of general criminality.

Now the homocide rate is very high, probably for two broad reasons:

  1. America is awash with guns.
  2. A combination of stupid drug laws, gang cultures, and inner-city deprivation.

The above two set America apart from most other civilised nations, who either have one but not the other, or both but on a far smaller scale.  If you’re looking for a reason why there are more homicides by firearms in the US than UK, for example, then look no further.

So how are harsher gun controls supposed to help with this?  As TNA pointed out in the comments of my previous post:

1. I don’t believe those with malicious intent will pay any attention to gun laws.
2. There are loads of guns already out there and they are non-biodegradable.

A lot of foreigners, particularly Australians, point to the Australian gun buy-back scheme which was set up as part of the new legislation after the 1996 massacre in Port Arthur.  This netted 631,000 firearms, turned in by law-abiding owners.  However, as the same linked Wiki article tells us:

Low levels of violent crime through much of the 20th century kept levels of public concern about firearms low. In the last two decades of the century, following several high profile multiple murders and a media campaign, the Australian government co-ordinated more restrictive firearms legislation with all state governments.

So the Australian government managed to gather and destroy a lot of legal firearms from a population that had, by and large, not been using them to kill each other very much.  Leaving aside whether this was necessary (although Australians point to their lack of recent massacres to vindicate this policy), it is hard to see this working in the US: criminals are criminals, and are not likely to hand over their guns.  In short, Australia and the US are at very different starting points with the main difference being the armed, criminal element in Australia was pretty low.  As it was in the UK around the time of Dunblane.

Even assuming law-abiding Americans hand over their weapons instead of going through the embuggerance of complying with European-style gun laws (which I very much doubt), this still leaves the vast swathes of gun-toting criminals who would in all certainty hang onto them, and in all probability be delighted that they are now the only civilians who will be armed.  The Australian scheme simply isn’t going to work in the US and remove any more than a handful of guns from circulation.

And that’s by far the biggest problem facing America when it tries to grapple with its sky-high homicide-by-firearm rate: there are a lot of violent criminals, and they all have guns.  If you want to tackle this problem, the starting point would be a severe examination of their disastrous war on drugs, but nobody will touch that with a barge-pole.

However, nobody really cares about the vast majority of homicides which are dark folk shooting other dark folk.  Certainly the Europeans couldn’t care less about inner-city gang violence in the US.  But they are quite happy to use these statistics whenever there is a shooting spree.  Shooting sprees are terrible events and create harrowing storylines, but statistically they are insignificant, hence the overall gun death rate must be held aloft when the bodies are still warm in order to advance the agenda.

There is an argument that increased gun control might prevent some shooting sprees (although not all of them), which was put to me by a Texan friend.  The type of loser who goes on a shooting spree would probably lack the balls and the social connections to get hold of illegal weaponry, and so picks up a legal one from the nearest shop.  Without this option, he might not be able to arm himself.  I’ll not dismiss this argument because it does make sense in theory, but increasing gun controls is unlikely to eradicate all shooting sprees as anyone determined will arm himself one way or another.  But more importantly, I don’t think shooting sprees have much to do with gun controls anyway: it is more an issue of mental health diagnosis and treatment, and the quirk of American culture which for whatever reason throws up delusional, attention-seeking assholes who would do anything for a few minutes of notoriety – be it on a reality TV show or by committing mass murder.  Addressing these two issues would probably go a lot further to reducing the number of shooting sprees than making people obtain gun permits.

Finally, what annoys me a lot about Europeans and Australians when they comment on America’s gun laws is they are completely dismissive of 1) the constitutional structure of the USA and 2) the opinion of millions upon millions of American citizens.  We saw this when the Kyoto Protocol was roundly rejected by the US senate by whopping 95-0 because, rightly, they saw it as a massive stitch-up for the American way of life.  Europeans reacted with disbelief and insults, seemingly astonished that an American government is unable to just enact whatever laws it likes in order to fall into line with what the rest of the world wants.  The way Europeans sneer at the American constitutional right of its citizens to keep and bear arms betrays a deep-rooted ignorance and snobbery which Americans have detested since the Boston Tea Party.  Secondly, Americans have been time and again asked whether increased gun control laws are a price they are willing to pay to reduce the number of gun deaths in the USA, and each time they have come back with a resounding “No!” based on:

1) The fact that they have a constitutional right to own guns, and the government does not have the power to infringe this; and

2) The quite understandable idea that restricting their right to own a firearm would not make a blind bit of difference anyway.

America has serious issues with guns and gun deaths, but these will not be solved by their listening to foreigners who are breathtakingly ignorant or utterly dismissive of every historical, cultural, societal, political, and constitutional aspect of this highly complex and divisive topic.

(With thanks to the commentators on my previous post.)

Posted in Politics, USA | 14 Comments

The Gay Marriage Decision: Right Outcome, Wrong Reasons

I’ll start this post by saying I am satisfied at the outcome of the US Supreme Court’s decision that gay marriages shall be recognised across the whole nation.  I’m a believer in equality and liberty and see no reason why homosexuals should have been treated any differently from heterosexuals.

However, I am not particularly happy about the route taken to reach this decision and the basis on which this recognition was granted.  I would have been a lot happier had the US Supreme Court said:

“The issue of marriage, or any other aspect of personal relations between individuals, is of no interest to the government aside from those few benefits related to tax, inheritance, and immigration which are available to any two individuals who register a partnership for this purpose.”

Then we could really celebrate equality, liberty, and progress.

But instead, we have a situation whereby the state generously recognised a partnership between a man and a woman (which raises the question, who the hell asked for their “recognition” in the first place?), and now – after years of intense lobbying – the government has decided it will graciously recognise homosexual partnerships as well.

I’m sorry, but which part of begging for government recognition of the way in which two people arrange their personal lives represents a victory for liberty here, even if said begging was ultimately successful?  The whole process implies that government recognition was the ultimate aim for homosexual couples, whereas I would have much preferred to see them declare that they ought to be able to do what the hell they liked without the state poking its nose in.  Getting official permission for something they should have been allowed to do by right anyway is hardly worth celebrating.

I understand that the gay marriage lobby wanted to end the discrimination homosexual couples faced compared with heterosexuals when it comes to things like taxes and inheritance, which was a genuine grievance.  This whole mess came about by the state deciding that a family headed by a man and a woman in a marriage was something worth promoting.  Given almost every society on earth for the past three thousand years has adopted this model, or close variations of it, they probably had some justification for thinking perhaps this is something they ought to encourage.  But in doing so, they inadvertently blundered into having to decide what does and does not constitute a marriage, something which would have seemed simple and straightforward at the time and never in legislators’ wildest dreams would they have thought the Supreme Court was one day going to get roped into arguments over how to define a marriage.  The lesson here is that governments should consider very carefully what aspects of life it is going to barge in on and trample over with its big hob-nailed boots before doing so, because the future is hard to predict.  This lesson has not been learned at all.

As soon as the issue of homosexual marriage came on the radar, the government should have ceased all use of the word “marriage” and refused to deal with any complaint where that word appears.  They should have substituted the term “marriage” with “recognised partnership” and thrown the definition of marriage back into the realm of private social affairs where it belongs.  The state doesn’t define what constitutes a date.  It should not try to define what constitutes a marriage.

The tax and inheritance discrimination issue could have, and should have, been dealt with by a cold, leaden, impersonal clause in the tax code that states any two adults may register a partnership for this purpose instead of the government deciding what does and doesn’t constitute a marriage and dishing out favours accordingly.  If a man and a woman can get tax breaks, and two men can get tax breaks, why not two siblings?  Or two friends?  Are sexual relations now the defining criteria of whether two people can enjoy the same financial benefits other couples enjoy?  It appears so.

By the government hanging onto the word marriage, and framing the debate around that term, the gay rights lobby has insisted that only state recognition of “gay marriage” is acceptable – perhaps with some reason, given the importance the state affixes to the term.  But at the same time the illiberal, intolerant wing of the gay rights movement – which is substantial – have used the term marriage as a stick to bash those who might prefer to define a marriage as only possible between a man and a woman.  What started as a movement to end bureaucratic discrimination has evolved into a nationwide campaign to force everyone to accept – even in their private dealings – the state-approved definition of marriage.  Quite why this is something we should be celebrating escapes me.

I found the issue over the gay wedding cake scandal to be deeply disturbing.  It was strikingly obvious that some intolerant, illiberal troublemakers had hunted around for somebody against whom they could level the charge of discrimination in order that they increase their own powers and privilege at the expense of somebody else’s liberty.  Let’s make one thing clear here: contrary to what many people implied, gays in the USA in 2015 are not facing discrimination and denial of services either in the form or degree of Southern blacks in the pre-civil rights era and nor will they ever, no matter how many bakers, bible-bashers, and motel owners gather to condemn them.  For a start, it was not anti-discrimination laws which granted Southern blacks equality, it was an end to the racist, state-imposed laws which actively discriminated against them.  Secondly, the situation faced by Southern blacks was a unique and terrible product of the country’s history, and therefore needed special laws to rectify.  At least, that’s what the United States lawmakers feel: the unique situation of African Americans is precisely what is used to justify the retention of positive discrimination policies which offer benefits denied to other minority groups.

So where it might be argued – although not necessarily endorsed by me personally – that otherwise illiberal anti-discrimination laws were and are necessary to ensure African Americans achieved equality in the USA, it is a massive stretch to claim that gays are also in need of such laws.  But that’s what has effectively been done: being privately against homosexual marriage – not partnerships, marriage – is now the equivalent of being a paid-up member of the Ku Klux Klan, and anyone expressing such opinions is to be hounded out of society by a baying mob.  Whatever happened to “we don’t need a piece of paper to prove our love”?  Now not only is that piece of paper required, but everyone else is required to put their stamp of endorsement on it.  This is progress?

The gay lobby has got what it wanted, but I fear the means in which it has achieved it may come back to haunt them.  A large part of the gay rights campaign was not about gay rights at all, but this was simply an issue on which juvenile, middle-class social justice warriors hooked their bandwagon in order to bash what they perceive to be the Establishment (but more often than not, turned out to be ordinary people trying to get on quietly with their lives).  With this new ruling by the Supreme Court, homosexuals have taken a giant stride towards being part of the establishment and an equally large stride away from being a persecuted minority worthy of the backing of a baying mob of self-appointed professional outrage-mongers.  As the last hold-outs against gay marriage recognition slowly die or get legislated away, new battlefronts will be drawn and the mob will move onto something else: in fact we’re already seeing that transsexuals have become the homosexuals de nos jours, and it remains to be seen whether gay men living otherwise normal, professional lives will enjoy immunity from the increasingly hate-driven and vitriolic modern feminist movement.

In the great game of victimhood poker, gays might have just won a big pot of chips but the game goes on, and their hand is now much weaker.  One day they might wish they’d achieved their goals via a route of basic libertarian principles and turned their backs on state coercion.

Posted in Politics, USA | 8 Comments

Obama: wrong as usual

The BBC reports on Barack Obama’s reaction to the appalling church shooting in Charleston with the following title:

Charleston church shooting: Obama’s ‘hopeless’ push for gun control

Why might it be hopeless?  Well, let’s look at what Obama said:

“At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries,”

Which is flat-out wrong, and unless Obama is spectacularly tin-eared, is a whopping great lie.  In July 2011, Norwegian Anders Breivik killed 77 people in an attack inspired, in part at least, by racial hatred 67 of which were shot.  More recently, we had the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris in which gunmen murdered 12 people and wounded 11 others.

Regardless of whether you think increased gun controls in the US are desirable, it is hardly surprising that a “push” which starts off with a ludicrously false claim is “hopeless”.  But the way the BBC presents it, it is only the unreasonable stubbornness of conservative gun-nuts which are preventing Obama from ending such shootings permanently.

Posted in Politics, USA | 13 Comments

The Bali Nine Seven

This post is an expansion of a comment I left over at TNA’s gaff, and is on the subject of the recent execution of Australians Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran, the ringleaders of the Bali Nine group who were arrested for smuggling a shitload of heroin out of Bali in 2005.

Firstly, Australia as a nation was entitled to, and would have been correct IMO, to oppose the execution of these two men on grounds of principle.  Such a principle could have been that the death penalty should never apply in any case for a variety of reasons, for example:

1) the fallibility of any justice system;

2) the irreversibility of the sentence in the event the conviction was wrong;

3) the propensity of individuals working within justice systems worldwide to fuck over defendants in order to further their own careers (examples here).

I would have agreed with Australia formally making Indonesia aware of their opposition to the death penalty in principle, for the above reasons, before the Bali Nine were even arrested.  I would have considered it perfectly reasonable for Australia to reiterate its opposition in this manner before, during, and after the sentencing.  And I would have been quite okay with Australia repeating this point right up the execution and to continue to do so afterwards.  Raising such objections would have been entirely possible while still recognising Indonesia’s right to manage their own affairs.  Had they done so, there is a chance the Indonesians might have listened.

Instead, we got an attempt by the Australian and international media – seemingly supported by Australia’s politicians and intellectual elite – to downplay the fact that the two condemned men were unrepentant criminals who had been tried and convicted of a serious crime which would result in the harshest of sentences in any jurisdiction you care to mention.  Rarely, if ever, was it noted by those supporting Chan and Sukumaran that:

Four of the seven mules were arrested at Denpasar airport with heroin strapped to their bodies, while Sukumaran and three others were detained at a Kuta hotel in possession of heroin. Chan, arrested at the airport, was not carrying drugs.

Convicting them in February 2006, the court said the pair were guilty of “illegally exporting first-class narcotics in an organised way”.

It said Chan and Sukumaran had provided money, airline tickets and hotels to the seven mules.

“There are no mitigating factors. His statements throughout the trial were convoluted and he did not own up to his actions,” Judge Arief Supratman said of Chan. Another judge, Gusti Lanang Dauh, said Sukumaran “showed no remorse”.

These two were not duped into carrying drugs, or desperate men who turned to desperate measures.  The Indonesian court recognised that the other 7 were not as culpable and handed down hefty prison sentences instead of the death penalty.  The court, quite rightly, recognised that these two were the head of an organised criminal enterprise without whom the smuggling would never have taken place.  This distinction was barely mentioned by all those campaigning for clemency, mainly because the main message being peddled by Australian politicians and the media was that actually the two are pretty good eggs after all:

Multiple advocates for the pair said they became very different in jail to the young men sentenced to death by the court.

Chan, 31, ran Bible study classes in Bali’s Kerobokan jail, while Sukumaran, 33, became a keen artist.

The son of restaurant owners, and a former part-time cook, Chan also ran a cooking school in Kerobokan prison.

Sukumaran’s mother told News Limited that her son was also “rehabilitating” and had set up several courses in prison, including those in philosophy and art.

This rubbish is insulting to read, yet it was wheeled out again and again.  Bible classes, learning to paint, and cooking – the three things which were mentioned most often – does not constitute a single shred of evidence that the two were reformed.  I suspect a cursory glance at death row and lifer inmates worldwide would show most are engaged in some sort of artistic or instructional endeavour, mainly to stave off boredom.  And any regret they may have is an utter irrelevance: few criminals do not have regrets when receiving a harsh sentence, particularly those on death row for drug smuggling.  What might have convinced the Indonesians that the two had reformed was an admission of their guilt, a full and detailed description as to the extent of their operation and methods employed, and a request that their supporters in Australia desist from insulting the Indonesians any further by refusing to respect the court which convicted them.

Because if I was an Indonesian, hell I’d have been spitting feathers.  By all means, make the principled stand I described earlier but whipping up a media frenzy which overlooks the pair’s incontrovertible guilt and their leadership role, complete with accusations of corruption, threats of boycotts, withdrawal of ambassadors, and the casual dismissal of the sovereign right of Indonesia to try and sentence criminals apprehended on their own turf in accordance with their own laws.  There were times when the Australians might as well have said “Listen brown folk, we know you’re all corrupt and we are your superior neighbours, so let our citizens go free and we’ll allow you to sit with us at the next regional summit.”  Would Australia have dared to behave like this had the two ended up on death row in California?  Would they hell.  Would Australia have been happy about the Indonesian government protesting an Australian court ruling in such a manner?  No they would not.

Whatever chance the condemned men had of being spared before they were shot on 29th April, this was surely extinguished by the frankly disgraceful behaviour of Australia’s politicians and media.  No doubt the Indonesians will be blamed for years for the death of a “young, shy Australian man” and his mate who is “funny, articulate… charismatic and has a very caring personality”.  But Australia ought to shoulder the blame for ensuring their sentence would be carried out by insulting the Indonesians to such an extent that they had little choice but to do otherwise.

They were a nasty pair of criminals who chose to break the laws of another country and persuade others to do the same.  The Indonesians should not have sentenced them to death or carried out the executions, but even after doing so they come away from this sordid affair looking better than the Australians.  For the latter, having not actually shot anybody, that’s quite some achievement.

Posted in Australia, Media, Politics | 12 Comments

Incentives matter, so best not ignore them.

A story was doing the rounds last week that was drawing praise and admiration from various quarters:

The idea began percolating, said Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, after he read an article on happiness. It showed that, for people who earn less than about $70,000, extra money makes a big difference in their lives.

The idea began percolating, said Dan Price, the founder of Gravity Payments, after he read an article on happiness. It showed that, for people who earn less than about $70,000, extra money makes a big difference in their lives.His idea bubbled into reality on Monday afternoon, when Mr. Price surprised his 120-person staff by announcing that he planned over the next three years to raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk, customer service representative and salesman to a minimum of $70,000.

If it’s a publicity stunt, it’s a costly one. Mr. Price, who started the Seattle-based credit-card payment processing firm in 2004 at the age of 19, said he would pay for the wage increases by cutting his own salary from nearly $1 million to $70,000 and using 75 to 80 percent of the company’s anticipated $2.2 million in profit this year.

Those doing the praising were generally of a left-wing bent, and some went so far as to say this was a vision of the future and an example for other firms to follow.  Me, I’m not so sure, and I think Mr Price’s company is going to run into trouble over this at some point.

Now I’ll start by saying that Mr Price is perfectly within his rights to distribute his own salary among the workforce in such a manner.  And as I understand he is the owner, hell he can pay them $1m per year to watch TV for all I care.  I just don’t think he’s thought through the implications.  There are several problems which I think will arise, all of them to do with incentives.

The paychecks of about 70 employees will grow, with 30 ultimately doubling their salaries, according to Ryan Pirkle, a company spokesman. The average salary at Gravity is $48,000 a year.

His idea bubbled into reality on Monday afternoon, when Mr. Price surprised his 120-person staff by announcing that he planned over the next three years to raise the salary of even the lowest-paid clerk, customer service representative and salesman to a minimum of $70,000.

Firstly, if the lowest paid clerk is now on $70,000 per year there is almost no incentive for anyone to grow professionally by taking on more responsibility, tackling harder tasks, volunteering for the shit jobs, and putting in additional hours to increase their own value within the company.  If the clerk is on $70k, why would somebody from the middle-ranks with marketable skills and a higher education apply themselves if they were on similar wedge, or work extra hard just to earn $80k when by loafing he can earn $70k?  Better to take it easy and spend more time with the family.  And this will be made worse by the plan being phased in over 3 years.  Who is going to be interested in the new night manager role now the main incentive to take the crap hours is gone?  This will be felt even more keenly in sales: how much effort is the junior salesman going to put in now he’s on $70k per year?

Secondly:

Hayley Vogt, a 24-year-old communications coordinator at Gravity who earns $45,000, said, “I’m completely blown away right now.” She said she has worried about covering rent increases and a recent emergency room bill.

“Everyone is talking about this $15 minimum wage in Seattle and it’s nice to work someplace where someone is actually doing something about it and not just talking about it,” she said.

From the above quotation I think it is safe to assume that Hayley Vogt will never leave Gravity of her own free will because she is now paid 55% above market rate for being a communications coordinator.  Nobody above her is going to leave either, so it is an equally fair assumption that as long as Gravity exists, Ms Vogt – currently 24 – will be a communications coordinator.  So by the time she’s 40, Ms Vogt will still be a communications coordinator.  Do you see the problem here?  She’s undergone no professional growth.  She can’t be promoted internally because her superiors – also being paid well over market rate – will hang onto their jobs for all they’re worth.  So if Gravity goes tits-up in the future, Ms Vogt will find herself on the job market not only facing a severe cut in her income but also competing against people much younger from whom she cannot differentiate herself in any meaningful way.  For those on the lower rungs doing jobs which don’t require much skill or training, and thus youth, energy, and flexibility are major selling points, this could be a problem.

Of course, many people doing those kind of jobs aren’t looking for a career anyway, they just want to pay the bills.  Which brings me onto the third problem: with nobody leaving, how do you get rid of the underperformers?  Normally these people would leave because, having been passed over for promotion and higher pay for a few years running, want to try their luck somewhere else.  Now Mr Price is stuck with them.

Finally, how does Mr Price intend to bring new talent into the company?  Nobody is leaving, so that means only newly created positions will bring outsiders in.  Aside from not being a very healthy environment for any company, this creates an additional problem.  If a new position is created and advertised, every store clerk within 200 miles is going to apply for the job if it pays $70k per year.  Having an avalanche of CVs hit your desk is not helpful. When I worked in Dubai we advertised for an assistant accountant position and put an advert up somewhere.  Even though we were a small, unknown company we were receiving CVs by the thousand, mostly from Indians.  The problem was almost all the CVs were from labourers, forklift drivers, and other unskilled workers chancing their arm having seen a “big” salary (and indoor work) on offer.  Sifting through them all, trying to identify who was genuinely interested in the position and had the matching skills was a hopeless task.  Gravity Payments is going to find themselves with a similar problem: how many of the tens of thousands of CVs they will receive are from people who aren’t motivated solely by the incredible pay and couldn’t care less about the actual job?  And even those who are qualified, are they confident they will secure a suitable candidate from a shortlist all of whom are overwhelmingly motivated by the pay above everything else (and know they can likely loaf once they get in)?  HR departments in major oil companies will recognise this problem.

Despite his obvious success in business thus far, having set up Gravity Payments at he impressively young age of 19, I can’t help think Mr Price is still a bit wet behind the ears:

“Is anyone else freaking out right now?” Mr. Price asked after the clapping and whooping died down into a few moments of stunned silence. “I’m kind of freaking out.”

Whilst I might be persuaded that executive pay is too high in the US and the disparity between the lowest and highest paid is too wide in some companies, progressive pay scales are used and market rates adhered to for good reasons which might not be immediately obvious.  As Tim Worstall is fond of telling us, incentives matter.  Mr Price might end up learning this the hard way.

Posted in Business, Economics, USA | 3 Comments