What Catch-22 tells us about the BP spill

If it's good for the syndicate, it's good for you, say the bankers.

As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, another victim has made an appearance beyond dead fish and poisoned pelicans: British pensioners. According to yesterday's Daily Telegraph, the spill - and the American government's reaction to it - is hurting them terribly.

"BP's position at the top of the London Stock Exchange and its previous reliability have made it a bedrock of almost every pension fund in the country, meaning its value is crucial to millions of workers," the paper reported. The story continues with these chilling quotes:

"We need to ensure that BP is not unfairly treated - it is not some bloodless corporation," said one of Britain's top fund managers. "Hit BP and a lot of people get hit. UK pension money becomes a donation to the US government and the lawyers at the expense of Mrs Jones and other pension funds."

Mark Dampier of the financial services company Hargreaves Lansdown said: "[Mr Obama] is playing to the gallery but is not bringing a solution any closer. Obama has his boot on the throat of British pensioners. There is no point in bashing BP all the time, it's not helpful. It is a terrible situation, but having the American president on your back is not going to get it all cleared up any quicker."

Neil Duncan-Jordan, of the National Pensioners Convention, said: "Most ordinary people would not have thought that BP would have an impact on their retirement but if BP's share price goes down then their pension pot goes down.

"Most of those pension funds are invested in the default option, which is stocks and shares, and so if BP goes down the pan then their pension pot goes down the pan."

Can a pot go down a pan? That pressing question aside, the outraged tone taken by the fund managers here is extremely familiar. It's the voice of Milo Minderbinder, a character in Joseph Heller's Catch-22. Milo runs a syndicate, which comprises a number of generally crazy money-making schemes, and in which "everyone has a share". An elegant piece of circular logic allows the syndicate to get away with almost anything:

"Milo, how do you do it?" Yossarian inquired with laughing amazement and admiration. "You fill out a flight plane for one place and then you go to another. Don't the people in the control towers ever raise hell?"

"They all belong to the syndicate." Milo said. "And they know that what's good for the syndicate is good for the country, because that's what makes Sammy run. The men in the control towers have a share, too, and that's why they always have to do whatever they can to help the syndicate."

"Do I have a share?"

"Everybody has a share."

Everybody has a share, so what's good for the syndicate is good for everybody, what's good for the syndicate is good for the country, and what's good for Milo is good for the syndicate. Why, anything else is simply unpatriotic. Even the Germans have a share, so eventually the syndicate is being paid by the Americans to attack a bridge while being paid by the Germans to defend it. Milo starts flying German planes, and is horrified when an effort is made by the American authorities to confiscate those planes.

"Is this Russia?" Milo assailed them incredulously at the top of his voice. "Confiscate?" he shrieked, as though he could not believe his own ears. "Since when is it the policy of the American government to confiscate the private property of its citizens? Shame on you! Shame on all of you for even thinking such a horrible thought!"

"But Milo," Major Danby interrupted timidly, "we're at war with Germany, and those are German planes."

"They are no such thing!" Milo retorted furiously. "Those planes belong to the syndicate, and everybody has a share. Confiscate? How can you possibly confiscate your own private property? Confiscate, indeed! I've never heard anything so depraved in my whole life."

His tone of voice is familiar, isn't it? It's the same aggrieved wail of the fund managers, the banks, the hedge funds. Eventually, the syndicate bombs its own airbase, and Milo has gone too far. He is made to reimburse the government.

But the syndicate has been making unearthly profits, and everyone benefits, and the government is a democracy, and therefore made up of people who have already benefited, so really the government doesn't need to be reimbursed and the benefit has already gone to the people. Even when it's fouling its own nest and screwing everything in sight, the syndicate is good for everybody and good for the country. Similar logic is being used by the defenders of BP.

William Wiles is Senior Editor at Icon magazine. A longer version of his post appears on his blog, Spillway.

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So much for "the table never lies" – data unravels football's biggest lie of all

London side Brentford FC are using data to rethink the usual football club model.

It’s a miserable day for practice, the rain spitting down on the manicured training pitches of Brentford Football Club. Inside a tiny office marked Director of Football, Rasmus Ankersen is waiting for his phone to ring. The winter transfer window closes in 11 hours and there are deals to finalise.

Ankersen, a 33-year-old Dane with a trim beard and hair pulled into a small ponytail, seems relaxed. Perhaps he knows that the £12m transfer of the striker Scott Hogan to Aston Villa is as good as done. Or maybe his comfort comes from Brentford’s performance this season. The small west London club sits safely in the top half of the second tier of English football – at least according to management’s own version of the league table, which is based on “deserved” rather than actual results. Officially, on 31 January, when we meet, the team is 15th of 24.

“There’s a concept in football that the table never lies,” says Ankersen, whose own playing career was ended by a knee injury in his teens. “Well, that’s the biggest lie in football. Your league position is not the best metric to evaluate success.”

Brentford are an outlier in English football. Since the professional gambler Matthew Benham bought a majority share in 2012, they have relied on the scientific application of statistics – the “moneyball” technique pioneered in baseball – when assessing performance.

The early results were positive. In 2014, Brentford were promoted from League One to the Championship and the next season finished fifth. That same year, Benham’s other team, FC Midtjylland, which is run on similar principles, won the Danish Superliga for the first time.

Yet in 2016 Brentford slipped to ninth. Despite the disappointing season so far, Ankersen insists the strategy is the right one for “a small club with a small budget”.

Underpinning Brentford’s approach is the understanding that luck often plays a big part in football. “It is a low-scoring sport, so random events can have a big impact,” Ankersen says. “The ball can take a deflection, the referee can make a mistake. The best team wins less often than in other sports.”

In a match, or even over a season, a team can score fewer or more than its performance merits. A famous example is Newcastle in 2012, says Ankersen, who besides his football job is an entrepreneur and author. In his recent book, Hunger in Paradise, he notes that after Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League, their manager, Alan Pardew, was rewarded with an eight-year extension of his contract.

If the club’s owners had looked more closely at the data, they would have realised the team was not nearly as good as it seemed. Newcastle’s goal difference – goals scored minus goals conceded – was only +5, compared to +25 and +19 for the teams immediately above and below them. Statistically, a club with Newcastle’s goal difference should have earned ten points fewer than it did.

Moreover, its shot differential (how many shots on goal a team makes compared to its opponents) was negative and the sixth worst in the league. That its players converted such a high percentage of their shots into goals was remarkable – and unsustainable.

The next season, Newcastle finished 16th in the Premier League. The team was not worse: its performance had regressed to the mean. “Success can turn luck into genius,” Ankersen says. “You have to treat success with the same degree of scepticism as failure.”

Brentford’s key performance metric is “expected goals” for and against the team, based on the quality and quantity of chances created during a match. This may give a result that differs from the actual score, and is used to build the alternative league table that the management says is a more reliable predictor of results.

Besides data, Brentford are rethinking the usual football club model in other ways. Most league clubs run academies to identify local players aged nine to 16. But Ankersen says that this system favours the richer clubs, which can pick off the best players coached by smaller teams.

Last summer, Brentford shut their academy. Instead, they now operate a “B team” for players aged 17 to 20. They aim to recruit footballers “hungry for a second chance” after being rejected by other clubs, and EU players who see the Championship as a stepping stone to the Premier League.

It’s a fascinating experiment, and whether Brentford will achieve their goal of reaching the Premier League in the near future is uncertain. But on the day we met, Ankersen’s conviction that his team’s fortunes would turn was not misplaced. That evening, Brentford beat Aston Villa 3-0, and moved up to 13th place in the table. Closer to the mean.

Xan Rice is Features Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times