Sunday, 28 February 2010

Lunch and a thought or two on politics

***

Spent a very pleasant lunchtime celebrating Margaret Eaton’s DBE with the Shipley Constituency Party. I made comment on Margaret’s honour here so won’t revisit except to say how impressed I was by her today. If you want to learn what class really is you could do no better than work with Margaret for a few days.

Two things struck me about the gathering.

Firstly, how old we’re getting. I’ve been active here for about 20 years and it’s the same faces – just all those years older. This shows the problem that all political parties are facing – indeed I had a conversation along these lines with some fellow guests. The parties – once a million or more strong – are now shadows of their former selves, only help together by our longevity and a trickle of new activists.

Secondly, how important places like Bradford are to the Party. And that – as I’ve said before – our strategy in such places might be slightly misplaced. These people want steak and chips not polenta – we need to put a little blood in the water. The voters of Bingley Rural – 60% of whom will vote Tory – are not the cartoon middle-class beloved of the BBC. They are people who go to the pub, smoke, drink more than the BMA says they should and holiday in Torremolinos. They hate Gordon – I know because they tell me they do – but without that red meat, without a real sense that the scrounger state will be capped, they might not bother.

Some of the stuff we hear is good – promises of business friendly tax cuts, sorting out the deficit, scrapping quangos and handing across a little more local control. But the stuff about countline bars, booze prices and sex education is rubbish – just more of the nanny state that we all hate. Bingley Rural voters know smoking’s bad for them, that they shouldn’t drink too much, too often and that chocolate bars can make you fat (as part of a calorie controlled diet) – what they don’t want is the government to ram that in their face all the bloody time.

Sound money, lower taxes...you're getting there George!

***

I am feeling quite reassured – partly by Cameron’s speech today (although I didn’t watch it so am just seeing what most of the public will see) and partly by the reaction to Osborne’s Mais Lecture from economists who share my rather bleak view of our current economic condition:

“Mr Osborne is the only senior serving British politician…who has grasped the gravity of our situation. As such his Mais Lecture pledged an “early start” to budget deficit reduction, in order to “establish the credibility with the financial markets that buys you time.” That’s exactly right.” (Liam Halligan)

Tyler is somewhat reassured by this speech. It is a weightier offering than the kind of politicking stuff George has sometimes served up in the past. It may not have quantified targets for spending cuts, and we still need to see him adopt clear fiscal rules - including that all-important third rule to govern spending - but this speech does have the makings of a serious plan for government (and see the TPA view here).” (Wat Tyler, Burning Our Money)

“I've only just got round to reading George Osborne's Mais lecture of a couple of days ago and it is rather good, one of the clearest expositions of the economic challenges facing Britain you'll come across.” (David Smith, Sunday Times)

Still a way to go – and not much time – but the Conservative economic agenda gets clearer. And coupled with some tax cuts presents the core message to the electorate – we’re on your side:

“The Prime Minister unleashes the forces of hell, I want us to unleash the forces of enterprise…

Our first budget will contain funded measures to boost enterprise and create jobs. We will abolish the tax on new jobs created in new businesses. We will cut the corporation tax rate paid for by removing complex relefis and attract international headquarters to Britain.

We will reduce the small companies tax rate by simplifying the tax code and make it far easier to get a business started.

For I am absolutely passionate about supporting small businesses. Together these will help power an enterprise revolution. A growing private sector, freed from the burdens of red tape and complex taxation, able to offer those without work hope.

A private sector in which our entrepreneurs are given every help they need to build our economic future and create the jobs Britons desperately need.”
(George Osborne)

On economic policy we’re there – not everything in place but a clear strategy that faces up to reality. Certainly better than the Viv Nicholson economics of Gordon Brown

Friday, 26 February 2010

A thought or two about the BBC and its strategy

***

As you all know there is almost nothing at all worth watching on the telly these days other than news or sports (and most of that’s quite missable) so like many other’s I’ve discovered the joy of scrolling through radio channels. In doing this I’ve discovered some weird and wonderful broadcasting, an enormous amount of commercial mush, some truly awful advertising and BBC 6Music.

Indeed, I am (almost) happy to pay the Telly Tax in the knowledge that some of it is being spent on an intelligent contemporary music channel – a kind of rock music version of Radio 3 (the other good thing done by the BBC). On 6Music I’ve become acquainted with some very oddly named bands and this in interspersed with sessions from the Beeb’s archive – listening to Wreckless Eric the other evening almost brought tears to my eyes!

So to the proposals contained (we’re told) in a major strategy review at the BBC. A review that seems wholly focused on further emasculating the Corporation’s minority and public service activity in favour of going head to head with Murdoch and ITV in chasing popularity. This seems to me wholly mistaken and misplaced, a pandering to big earning stars and executives and neglecting the BBC’s role.

Instead of using taxpayers cash to compete with commercial broadcasters, the BBC should be pulling away from that role. Instead of closing down half its website, what little remains of the world service and highly regarded minority radio stations, the BBC should be doing this:

1.Selling off Radio 1 and Radio 2 which are little different in content from commercial broadcasters and have no obvious public service purpose
2. Taking advertising on BBC1 which is just a commercial station broadcasting the same old rubbish as ITV but paid for from taxes
3. Using the Telly Tax income to try out more, new and creative radio, on-line and TV ideas like Radio 6Music – a jazz station, literature, film,


And the Government should be:

1. Netting off commercial income against the Telly Tax – the more the BBC sells the lower that tax
2. Providing an incentive for the BBC’s senior management to “monetise” the activity – whether on-line or broadcast. Pay them bonuses linked to the level of Telly Tax – high bonus for lower tax
3. Selling off sections of the BBC as they become commercially viable and sustainable
4. Ending the cosy BBC jobs advertising monopoly enjoyed by the Guardian

....

Friday Fungus: Collins Mushroom Miscellany - a review


For Christmas, I received a copy of Collins Mushroom Miscellany by Patrick Harding. I thought I’d share some thought son it with you. The book isn’t a guide to mushrooms but a wander through the highways and byways of mushrooms, toadstools and assorted fungi.

Patrick Harding is a real mycophile having spent a fair chunk of his life teaching us lesser mortals about mushrooms and this miscellany is clearly a labour of love. In and amongst the content are some real delights such as how many fungi there are:

“...the number of known, named species is in the region of 100,000, and the total has been estimated to be closer to 1.5 million different species.”

Now that a whole load of ‘shrooms!

...and some of them are very old:

“Observations of fairy rings, especially those made by the fairy ring champignon (Marasimius oreades), have been made over successive years in an attempt to measure the average increase in diameter of the fruiting ring. As with the growth of trees there are good years and bad years for fungal growth. The rate of increase in the diameter of a ring...is in the range of 20-70cm per year. Even if we take the upper figure, rather than an average, this means that a ring of nearly 800m in diameter must have been made by an individual that is at least 1,100 years old.”

The book talks of ceps, morels, chanterelles and truffles and is beautifully illustrated with photographs and drawings It even tells us of the bad fungi – Serpula lacrymans, for example (dry rot, now happily quite rare in the UK) and Claviceps purpurea (ergot, the scourge of European cereals and source of madness). And of course the book describes the psychotropic mushrooms: fly agaric and the Psilocybe genus.

However, I like the book best for its chapter on M.C.C. (Mordecai Cubitt Cooke), Britain’s first professional mycologist – a man who got dismissed as a teacher for “...teaching too much science.” And who went on to help found the British Mycological Society and to produce the eight volume "Illustrations of British Fungi" for Kew.

M.C.C. is no relative but it is good to know that we share both a name and an interest in mushrooms!

....

Thursday, 25 February 2010

Dear Libertarians...tie yourselves to the mast! (Or why you shouldn't trust Peter Hitchens)

***

This is a plea for libertarians and liberals to tie themselves to the mast...

For some long while Peter Hitchens has argued that the only hope for British politics is for the Conservative Party to be replaced with a new party of the right:

"The only chance of the creation of a genuine conservative force in this country is the collapse and splitting of the Tory party. Britain has nothing significant to gain from a Tory victory."

The key words in this quote are “genuine conservative force” – Peter Hitchens is not a liberal. So it surprises me that liberals and libertarians are suggesting (here, for example) that voting labour come the General Election would both hasten the breaking up of the Conservative Party and bring a new political system:

“And from the ruins of this morass of big government, quango-loving goat-felchers may well arise a different political system, one which recognises that British people have to potential to be something other than vacuous sheep. A political system that has learned the lesson that you cannot have everybody living at the expense of someone else. A political system that has learned that government is the problem, not the solution.”

OK, I’ve heard you saying it…”well, he would say that wouldn’t he”! But I am genuinely concerned that by following their argument liberals and libertarians will get what they wish for – a “genuinely conservative force”. And what does that mean – will it see an end to the scrounger state? Or will we just see a different set of priorities for the agents of statism?

I agree that the Political Party must lose it’s power – but that’s not what Hitchen’s wants. Hitchen’s wants a new conservative party. And more importantly it is a party that rejects the libertarian idea, that through its support of nationalism provides a central role for the state. Hitchen’s new conservative party is not a nice party free from the hug-a-tree greenery of Cameron or the muscular Christianity of IDS – it is the nasty party reborn.

Now I’m in favour of a radical change to our political system:

“Direct election of the executive
Terms limits for all politicians at whatever level
The power of recall
Ending state funding for political parties
Repealing the Registration of Political Parties Act
Restricting all election campaigning to the promotion of individual candidates”

But these changes will not come through replacing one political party with another – doubtless populated by the same collection of the ambitious and the anorak. Nor do I think that breaking up the party of the centre-right needs to result in the ride to victory of the “right” kind of “right-wing” party.

As I’ve said before, be careful what you wish for….

...

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Wednesday Whimsy: Hell's Forces Unleashed!


It seems that our Prime Minister is in league with the Devil (who as we know listens to Tangerine Dream) and has unleashed his forces upon the hapless Chancellor of the Exchequer. It seems to me that Alistair Darling (clearly a werebadger by the way) has considerable power in resisting an order of battle including:

Hellhounds
"We must fly this instant, or the hellhounds of justice will be on us. Come 1 rouse yourself, or we are lost !"

Nightmares
How many of our daydreams would darken into nightmares, were there a danger of their coming true!

Eryine
Erinye, it should be noted, is the oldest Greek name for the Furies who, traditionally, are said to plague murderers

Plus of course legions of devils* – abishai, amnizu, hamatula, barbazu, osyluth, kyton, cornugon & gelugon. All commanded by the Lords of Hell.

I’m not sure which of these is McBride but he could well have spawned from this rather chubby devil.
....

Stuck in Hell

A victory of darkness.

Persephone got stuck in Hell for nibbling on these fine fruits.

Our despair as Hades’ shadow snuffs out the joy and beauty of Summer. Wracked with grief at the forced separation, Demeter casts famine upon the earth – man is doomed.

Have we been eating this unloved fruit? Is there a time when the curse and darkness of winter will be lifted? Will we pass through March and through April still in the throes of winter’s cold?

Perhaps, we’re wrong about all this, we’re wrong to say it’s grumpy old Hades fault? Underneath his grumpiness he means well. Ok, so everything he touches is destroyed. His curse extends to all he meets. To each place he goes.

But he means well, his heart is not black but caring. And he loves Persephone.

And love will triumph over rationality...it always does, does it not?

...there will be a glimpse of Spring before we plunge once again into darkness.

....

If Gordon were a councillor....

****

One of Labour’s more egregious pieces of legislation was the 2000 Local Government Act. You know, the one that got rid of the “out-of-date” committee system and replaced it with sleek, streamlined, single-party executive committees and useless scrutiny. This is legislation that Gordon Brown supported and continues to support.

Well under that legislation we also got the Standards Board for England and an enforceable ‘code of conduct’ for Councillors. This defines when a member is subject to the provisions of the Code:

“1) A member must observe the authority's code of conduct whenever he -

(a) conducts the business of the authority;
(b) conducts the business of the office to which he has been elected or appointed;or
(c) acts as a representative of the authority,

and references to a member's official capacity shall be construed accordingly”

So actions within a Local Council Cabinet Member’s office would unquestionably be in a place where the ‘Code’ applies. And under the general obligations of the ‘Code’ a member must:

“treat others with respect”; (2(b))

…and must not:

“…conduct himself in a manner which could reasonably be regarded as bringing his office or authority into disrepute.” (3)

…and must:

“…if he becomes aware of any conduct by another member which he reasonably believes involves a failure to comply with the authority's code of conduct, make a written allegation to that effect to the Standards Board for England as soon as it is practicable for him to do so.”

It seems to me that, on the assumption that Gordon Brown’s behaviour is as described in reports, had he been a Councillor rather than an MP, there would have been a case brought before the Adjudication Panel of the Standards Board. And, assuming the behaviour was shown to have happened, its nature (throwing things, shouting at junior staff, etc.) would warrant a suspension.

Now, as people know I think the Standards Board, Code of Conduct and associated kangaroo courts should be scrapped. But Gordon doesn’t.

Good thing he’s not a Councillor then?

...

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Another good reason to vote Conservative...

****

I might say a little more about the Conservative Party's planning "green paper" but its general direction seems excellent. This line struck me especially:

"...giving local people the power to engage in genuine local planning through collaborative democracy - designing a local plan from the "bottom up", starting with the aspirations of neighbourhoods."

That plus abolishing the Infrastructure Planning Commission and nobbling the Planning Inspectorate is a good start towards having a responsive, locally-focused and accountable planning system. And that the vested interests of the British Property Federation and RTPI don't like it suggest to me that we might be on to something!

....

Monday, 22 February 2010

To the wood government is the man with the axe...


OK, grump over. It's true that the forthcoming General Election seems set to see an even lower turnout than in 2005. And yes, there's a great deal of distrust directed at politics, politicians and the political system. And boy do we deserve it. But there's still reasons to do it...

1. If liberal minded folk like me aren't there the controllers, collectors and directors will win for sure

2. Somebody has to beat against the wall of bureaucratic unhelpfulness that surrounds government

3. The plague somehow never strikes all their houses - despite the protest those houses still carry on

But above all someone has to see the wood....

...and that wood - the "big picture" - isn't some visiting of your values on me (I know your values are better you keep on telling me) because there's 51 of you and only 49 of me. The wood is thousands - millions - of different people all striving for sunlight, making their own patch as good as they can, growing, developing and reproducing. All happily and cheerfully.

To that wood government is the man with the axe. Sometimes helpful, useful, organising. But mostly destructive, unheeded and uncaring.

....

Sometimes I wonder why I bother....

***

Sometimes I wonder why I bother....

Yesterday a local resident rang me to complain. The matter of his complaint is not significant but his political response was...

“You’re all useless. You can’t get a simple thing sorted out. I won’t be voting at the General Election.”

Now if this was a solitary event, I would put it down to the heat of the moment but this comment is ever more common. It goes along with:

“If I could, I’d be off to (inset foreign country of choice) tomorrow. This country’s finished.”

And:

“I’m half inclined to vote for (insert chosen unpleasant right-wing party) just to make a point.”

Or:

“You politicians are all the same. Just interested in yourselves, getting big wages and fiddling expenses. Don’t care about ordinary people.”

The population – or that part of it willing to articulate its feelings – seems to be in one big grump. And now we’re facing the prospect of a General Election that will be characterised by nasty personal attacks, smears, innuendo and the construction of straw men to knock down.

The chances of a real debate about the economy, schools, health, soldiers dying in other people’s wars....the things that do matter? Don’t hold your breath!

This weekends nastiness fest around Gordon, bullying hotlines and yah-boo "you're bad, we're good" politics has left a rather nasty taste. His Grace has it about right.

...I guess I will bother but it will likely be more because I'm helping friends than from any real enthusiasm.

...

Sunday, 21 February 2010

We won't stop bullying until we stop promoting bullies

***

Bullying is the deliberate and persistent targeting of an individual or individuals to achieve a given end – most commonly their collapse into tears, resort to violence or departure.

There has been a great deal said, much speculation and a great deal of unpleasantness surrounding Gordon Brown’s behaviour. Now I don’t know whether Mr Brown is a bully, whether he condones or encourages such behaviour in others or whether his alleged bursts of violence should be seen as a major problem or not. But I do think we have a problem with bullying in our political culture – indeed, in our wider society. Put simply, we are very tolerant – even praising – of behaviours that are typical of the bully.

John Terry is celebrated for his forthrightness and “strong-leadership” as he praised Didier Drogba’s attempt to bully a referee over a particular decision. And it’s not just the former England captain at fault – such behaviour is common-place as this BBC report from 2003 about Manchester United players “refusing to bully” referee, Andy D’Urso. Bullying tactics are rife in football, have crept into cricket and I’m sure will begin to arise in other sports.

Examine some of the persistent targeted attacks on particular individuals – be it the Daily Telegraph’s assault on Nadine Dorries, the #kerryout campaign on Twitter or Labour’s constant smearing of Lord Ashcroft. These are attempts to use bullying as a deliberate campaigning tool. None of these targeted individuals are without fault – but that cannot justify these sorts of bullying tactics, surely?

In a world where malicious gossip, the unattributed briefing, the marshalling of attack messages through such hideous ideas as “mob Monday” and the joyous celebration of the aggressive, unheeding, shouting leader - look at Sir Alex Ferguson, at Sir Alan Sugar, at Alistair Campbell. These are our roles models of leadership – vulgar, ignorant, aggressive, selfish and often just downright unpleasant. Step back and ask how anyone could condone - let alone employ - a man as unpleasant and bullying as Tucker from In the Thick Of It. Is it any surprise that those at the bottom of that slippery pole think the way up is to climb over the crushed careers of others?

Anyone who has been on the receiving end of an unjustified, malicious and unpleasant campaign of political bullying – a straightforward attempt to destroy someone’s career – will know that there is no defence. Nothing you can do to stem the tide of snide, the avalanche of maliciousness. The bullied person ends up isolated – who would risk all that nastiness rubbing off on them. As was said of me by a senior Liberal Democrat (not to my face, of course, he’s too chicken to do that): “Simon finally ran out of friends”.

All the anti-bullying websites, all the well-meant “resources” for schools are useless besides a political and social culture that thinks targeting and destroying an individual – because we can – is acceptable. Instead of discussing the stuff about Gordon Brown, should we not be talking about the bigger issue of bullying? Should our leaders not be setting an example rather than taking advantage?

...

On wisdom...


Over at Living with Rats, Julian Dobson speculates on building what he terms “the wisdom economy.” I pondered on whether to indulge in my usual response to Julian’s stuff – to try and tear it to shred’s from the perspective of what I might call “real liberalism”.

However, I was rather more struck by the balance between knowledge and wisdom – a balance I have commented on before and which players of Dungeons & Dragons will appreciate better than most – as you’ll read here where this trite little distinction is sourced!

"Intelligence tells you what the problem is and how to solve it, wisdom tells you whether or not you should."

I’m not sure this takes us much further forward. But is does perhaps set wisdom somewhere else than knowledge. Here’s Bruce Lloyd saying much the same thing in management speak:

“In essence, Wisdom is the vehicle we use for integrating our values into our decision-making processes. It is one thing to turn information into knowledge that makes things happen, but it is quite another thing to make the ‘right’ (/’good’/’better’) things happen. How we actually use knowledge depends on our values. Instead of moving up from knowledge to Wisdom, we actually move down from Wisdom to knowledge -- and that is how we incorporate our values into our knowledge based decision-making, as well as see the application and relevance of what we generally call Wisdom.”

So, as we might expect, “wisdom” is about the application of values. But whose values? My values – of free choice, liberty, independence and self-reliance – can respond to wise application just as easily as can the so-called progressive values of no growth, collectivism and the superiority of the group. And the authoritarian too can apply his values in just the same manner and just as wisely.

Now in all this there is an assumption that wisdom is superior to knowledge – and it leads inevitably to the “I am wise, I know best” position (as K Sridevi rather raspingly points out here):

“One can understand the progression from storytelling to leadership to wisdom. Both storytelling and leadership, in different ways, depend on "the willing suspension of disbelief". The storyteller asks his audience, "trust me, follow me, even when my story seems to defy the way everyday life works". The leader asks her people, "trust me, follow me, even when the path looks difficult and against your immediate interest". And the idea of wisdom management does seem to have that "trust me, I know best, you're not really qualified to question me" character to it. "Wisdom" is sufficiently imprecise to make its possession effectively unverifiable in a general objective way, and sufficiently confusable with charisma to make its claims believable at least by some.”

So while the “knowledge economy” is defined by what we know, the “wisdom economy” does not have these bounds. It is defined only by the wise – and who decides who is wise or what is wisdom? In truth, we already have that “wisdom economy” since wise men have acted according to their values – and those values are the values of our societies.

Another way of seeing wisdom is as the exercise of “judgement”. We are back with phronesis – with Aristotle’s practical wisdom. And again this takes us through a process of firstly understanding good and bad (what Aristotle calls the “conditions for human flourishing”), the ability to consider what is required in such a context, to deliberate on that consideration and to act accordingly. We are where we started with the vexed issue of values – so long as I apply what I consider to be the “conditions for human flourishing” and do so with consideration, deliberation and follow through with action, so long as I do this I am acting with wisdom.

The idea of the “knowledge economy” was a recognition of the added value that derived from greater knowledge – this economy was less resource intensive, more culturally varied and more personally satisfying. It was about real economics. Sadly, the idea of the “wisdom economy” is just words – all successful economies and polities rely on the application of wisdom. Taking society’s values and applying them to decision-making, management and administration - that is wisdom.

....

Friday, 19 February 2010

Friday Fungus: Thoughts on risotto

I've been watching how risotto is presented in trendy restaurants. And I'm a little concerned. Not only is the risotto presented in a moulded form - which means it's overcooked - but there is no indication that it's cooked fresh. It's no surprise it stands up all pretty like - it's has hung around the kitchen for some while!

Good risotto - like all the best peasant cooking - requires patience and good ingredients. The finished dish should be liquid enough to move in the bowl - just beyond pourable and certainly not mouldable! And - assuming you've a good stock ready - it takes 20-25 minutes to cook risotto. There isn't any getting round this and moreover the cooking is laborious - bit of liquid, stir until absorbed, bit more liquid, stir again, carry on until the rice is cooked. You can't do this in the oven, you can't use a slow cookers, or a pressure cooker. Just a good saucepan over the heat, good stock, a glass of white wine and whatever else you want to add.

Mushroom stock

I tend to cheat a little with mushroom stock - an OK liquid can be made by soaking some dried porcini in salted boiling water. But for a really good mushroom stock try this:

8oz field mushrooms (roughly chopped)
2oz dried porcini
Celery - 4 or 5 sticks roughly chopped
Onion - medium sized, chopped
Assorted herbs - sage, thyme, parsley are good
Ground black pepper
1 tblspn olive oil
Salt
Glass of white wine
2lt water

Heat a heavy bottomed pan, add and heat the oil. Add all the dry ingredients, cover and allow to sweat for a couple of minutes. Add the wine, cover again and cook for 2-3 minutes - be careful that noting catches. Pour over the water, bring to the boil then simmer for about an hour. Stock done!

Then make the risotto and add fantastic fresh mushrooms, chicken, peas more herbs - whatever you fancy!

....

We really don't give a fig about voting, do we?


Yesterday there was a by-election in the Hyde Park & Woodhouse ward of Leeds City Council. The result was a gain by Labour from the Liberal Democrats. But that isn’t the point of this post.

This was a hard fought by-election – leaflets were delivered, doors were knocked, hordes of brainwashed students were marshalled to support the campaign, telephones were manned, tellers clustered round polling stations and loud-speakers blared through the day urging the good citizens of inner-city Leeds to exercise their voting rights.

And what happened?

A shade over 2200 folk cast their vote.


That is just 14.6% of the electorate.

Says a lot about the state of our democracy, don’t you think?
...

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Try talking about a three-day week to the small business owner!

***

I have been pondering how I might comment on “21 hours”, the latest piece of “research” from New Economics Foundation – who are to economics what homeopathy is to medicine.

This evening as I walked through Bingley, the real truth came to me. I walked – at about 6.15pm – past Ophiuchus. Run by Donna and Oliver, this is a hairdresser. And it was open. I wondered what this couple would think about:

“A ‘normal’ working week of 21 hours could help to address a range of urgent, interlinked problems: overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life.”

I suspect the answer would be somewhat a somewhat bemused shrug. After all let’s look at Donna & Oliver’s work:

*The shop is open six days every week – seven days during busy times such as approaching Christmas or before the school summer holidays

*Most days someone – usually either Donna or Oliver – is working from 8.30 in the morning through to 6.30pm or even later if there are still customers

*When the last customer’s hair is finished there’s the shop to clean, tidy and lock up – another half hour each day

*And then there’s stock to order, books to keep, tax and VAT forms to fill, staff to manage and tradesmen to arrange

Assuming it’s a normal week, Donna and Oliver probably clock up 100 hours working. And it’s stressful – margins are tight, business is tough and there’s plenty of competition. And on top of this Donna and Oliver have two kids – who have all the demands and needs you’d expect of young children.

Talking about “21 Hours” is an insult to these hard-working, decent, caring people who happen to have made the life choice of running a small business. The “21 Hours” idea is the product of people who have no clue why people work, what business is about or how the normal life of normal people operates.

We’d all like the “good life”. But some – like Donna & Oliver know it only comes from hard work, effort and good service. So New Economics Foundation, you know where you can stick your “21 Hours”?

...

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

++BREAKING NEWS: Goblins, fairies and pixies deny hacking MPs twitter account ++

In a dramatic twist to the story of David Wright’s mysterious hacker, the little people have denied being responsible for altering the MP’s tweet by adding the term “scum sucking.” The goblins have also denied stealing his lap top, interfering with his phone or any other actions designed to blacken the MP’s good name.

“I understand that various commenters including leading bloggers have suggested that only fairies, goblins or pixies could have made the alteration to David Wright’s twitter account,” said a spokesgoblin for King Oberon of the Fairies; “this may be true but we can assure you all that none of the king’s subjects were involved in amending the tweet or tweets of Mr David Wright MP.”

“For The Gentry to have interfered in human affairs in this way;” continued the spokesgoblin; “would have been a serious breach of the Treaty signed between Queen Mab and Queen Bess. Whatever you may say about elfkind, we keep to our interplaner agreements.”

With the obvious answer of supernatural intervention ruled out, this raises again the possibility that Mr Wright did in fact post a tweet including the term “scum-sucking”.

Fairy expert, Dr Elisa F. Godmother told The View from Cullingworth:

“This is a very serious accusation. Humans are wont to blame fairies for inexplicable events – “who did it then, the pixies” is an oft heard cry, mostly from parents faced with small children and broken crockery. But when these false allegations against fairykind affect Government, we can expect it to be raised by King Oberon’s representatives at the highest levels.”

“To me this seems a classic example of blaming the fairies for something for which the culprit is all too obvious. And anyway, fairies don’t use twitter.”
...

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

How labour will confiscate your savings

***

The public finances are in a mess. The level of Government borrowing cannot be sustained. The prospect of serial strikes by public sector unions looms. International agencies, the markets and the central banks eye Britain with doubt.

But Gordon cannot increase taxes much more – he cannot increase taxes on the rich beyond the (pointless and negative) level of 50% or revenues will drop. He can’t muck about with VAT for fear of really screwing the “recovery” – assuming there actually is one. And there’s only so much cash that can come from tinkering with allowances, duties and the like.

What Gordon would really like is to get his hands on our savings. On the billions we have squirreled away for our retirement, to pay for long-term care, to provide for our kids education, to do any number of little things we thought were important. But nothing is more important than Gordon pretending he doesn’t have to cut public spending. Nothing. Not your retirement pension, not the lump sum to pay off your mortgage, not the cash sums you’d like to give to your grandchildren. Nope. Gordon needs that money.

And he’s going to get it. Not by confiscation – that wouldn’t be popular. He can’t introduce a stinging wealth tax without plumbing new depths of unpopularity. But he’s going to get it…

he’s going to use inflation to make your meagre savings get him out of the mess. Let it rip…last month +1% - the most rapid increase on record. This month +0.6% - the second biggest monthly increase. And next month? Expect similar.

The Government’s strategy is to use inflation to reduce the impact of massive debt and to protect Labour’s key public sector voters. That’s why they printed £180bn in so-called “quantitative easing”.

Inflation is 3.5% now. Expect 4.5% - even 6% - over the next few months. And watch the value of your savings shrink! Transferred neatly into the reduction of the real value of government debt. Let it rip!

...

Free parking and lower rates - now that might help town centres!

***

New Start Magazine report on the increasing problem of a declining independent retail sector noting that:

“Vacancies have continued to increase over the last two quarters and overall shop vacancy has nearly doubled in England and Wales since the end of 2008. More than 12% of shops were empty across Great Britain between July and December last year”

Partly this reflects the impact of a very severe recession on the sector. It is not surprising that retailers struggle and especially independent retailers with low margins and little scope to reduce staffing or argue with the landlord about rent levels. The concern we should all have – a concern expressed in the Clone Towns reports – is that regardless of the cycle of growth and recession, the traditional high street is in decline. Indeed, it is already the case that many secondary centres are barely sustained by a convenience store, a building society branch and a couple of hairdressers.

It seems reasonable therefore to discuss the role of purpose of town centres and why their retail role is declining. A while ago I wrote that:

“Main Street is not simply a place of commerce – a shopping centre. Nor is it (as if in some Soviet dream) just a place for formal events and celebrations. It is a place of engagement and co-operation between merchants, consumers and “ancillary actors”. It is alive.

The driver to the success of Main Street isn’t the shop – although to hear us talk about town centres you would think that – it is the relationship we have with that place and the space it provides for the events and activities of our lives. In Bradford, when Pakistan win at cricket, hundred of fans head for the local centres. Not to shop but to share their happiness at victory.

Yet we distrust such a use for the spaces of our town centres. Many of us grumble about public drinking, about young people gathering together, about hen parties and stag dos. And we certainly dislike political campaigns and religious promotion (unless of course it’s an official and state-sanctioned occasion) – to the point of complaining about these activities.”

Simply talking about shopping misses the point – shops are there because the customers are there not the other way round. In suggesting ways forward, I argued that rather than controls, what town centres needed was programming, animation. But there is a further, practical issue illustrated by this:

“Free on-street car parking spaces in Bradford city centre look set to be scrapped.

The news was immediately condemned by traders as a further body blow in their fight to attract custom.

Only last week a study revealed that the city centre has the second highest proportion of vacant shops in the country.”

So the customer has to pay to go shopping in the town centre – something they don’t have to do out-of-town. Whether at the supermarket, in the retail park or at regional centres like Meadowhall and Trafford Park, we get to park for free. Despite this, local councils – urged on by central government – continue to promote extensions to on street parking charges, congestion charging and even the exclusion of cars from centres. Is it any surprise we go elsewhere?

But it’s worse. For all its rhetoric on supporting town centres. For all the planning policy discussions on hierarchies and sequential tests, out-of-town retailers have a significant financial advantage – the property taxes they pay are half or less than those of the town centre retailer. Our tax regime supports supermarkets. By way of illustration look at one small town – Uttoxeter:

“Town centre traders' business rates are nearly double that of Tesco – despite pulling in only half the supermarket giant's turnover.

The Post & Times revealed last week that the out-of-town chain store takes 50p of every pound spent in Uttoxeter.

But Government figures show the company's business rates are 46 per cent less than the combined total paid by shopkeepers in the centre.

Tesco forks out £386,000 each year for its Town Meadows Way site, while the 145 shopkeepers in The Maltings shopping precinct, High Street, Carter Street and Market Place stump up £714,000.”


So while we are right to look – as I suggested – at town centres as:

"1. places of performance – planned or otherwise
2. centres of culture not temples to shopping
3. a locus for excitement and discovery rather than the workaday
4. as venues for communal celebration, sharing and festivity"

…we also need to look at providing easier access including free parking and at removing the enormous tax advantage we are giving to out-of-town retailers. It would be a simple matter to drop business rates in designated town centres by 90% - and the impact would be immediate and beneficial. And local councils can remove parking charges on-street and drop car park charges straightaway - again to immediate benefit (and probably political advantage too!).

...

Monday, 15 February 2010

On participation...(and why people don't)

***

I have written on diversity, on the idea of the progressive and on markets (although I was rather snarky). Since this has become an ongoing theme, I thought I’d set out a few thoughts on another oft-raised “matter of importance”: participation.

Some while ago I wrote a piece entitled “In Praise of Idiots” where I argued that voter abstention wasn’t such a terrible thing.

“Now the good left-wing liberals at the Guardian think this grumpiness, this disengagement, this disinterest is a problem. And that’s where I disagree – the core consideration is the extent to which we are able to live as Greek idiots. Quietly, privately, without bothering our neighbours with our problems – and when such people want change they will get up from their armchairs, walk away from the telly and vote. The idea that not being bothered with voting most of the time makes them bad people is a misplaced idea – they are the good folk.

Above all we should listen quietly to what this “apathy” calls for – it is less bothersome, less interfering, less hectoring and more effective government. Such people want government to be conducted at their level not to be the province of pompous politicians with overblown and lying rhetoric. And they want the language of common sense, freedom, liberty and choice to push away the elitist exclusivity of modern bureaucratic government.”

Which brings us to participation. There is a presumption in policy-making that increased levels of participation result in better policy, more accountable government and variations of society being “fairer”, “more equal” or “more democratic”. So when organisations like the Joseph Rowntree Foundation discuss the issue there is no questioning of that basic assumption – it is axiomatic that higher levels of “participation” are good.

The problem I have with this is echoed in the JRF report:

“Many attempts at community participation fail because organisations promoting involvement are unclear about the level of participation on offer. Limited consultation ,with few real options, which is presented as an opportunity for active participation is likely to result in disillusionment.”

So let’s look at what the typical opportunities for “community participation” encompass:

There’s voting – we get a say in who toddles off down to Brussels, Westminster or the Town Hall but no say over what they do while they’re representing us. We are not participating but passing across our rights to participate to our “representative”

There’s the local forum – nearly everywhere has them plus extensive and expensive bureaucracies supporting such activity. And they’re very useful – for the policy-maker since they are consultative rather than participatory. More importantly, such forums get low turn outs because folk have something better to do on a wet Wednesday evening than sit watching patronising powerpoint presentations in some drafty community centre

There’s the survey – usually self-selecting rather than representative and mostly limited to “yes/no” boxes. And this clearly isn’t participation but opinion research (however badly conducted it may be)

Or how about “participatory budgeting” – a great idea but even in Porto Alegre where it’s something of a religion fewer than 3% of citizens take part. And those taking part ore disproportionately older, richer and better educated than the average

So either we are taking the horse to the water and it is stubbornly refusing to drink or else people think it’s a waste of time. And I’m pretty sure that the problem is the latter rather than the former. Most people do not want to participate in a highbrow discussion about investment priorities, regulatory options and other matters of bureaucratic importance.

If you want people to participate, you have to give them something – not a £5 voucher for filling in a survey but real control over the things that matter to them. And that means the schools, the local health centre, the community centre, the sports hall, the park and the cops. If you make people responsible for something they will participate. If you merely consult – or worse pretend that their input really will affect the policy choices of bureaucratic decision-makers – then people will, quite sensibly, stay at home watching whatever rubbish the telly is showing that evening!

...

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Dear Football - be careful what you wish for it, might come to pass

I must be getting old and grey – forgetful even – but isn’t the Conservative Party supposed to be against “government intervention” in private businesses? If so perhaps someone should explain the concept to Hugh Robertson MP, who is (I’m told) the Party’s Sports Spokesman:

“I encourage in the strongest possible terms footballing bodies to come together and work out a proper solution as a matter of urgency. My final point is that if they do so, we will back them, but if they do not, Government intervention remains an option.”

It seems to me that there is a growing pressure for government intervention in the affairs of football clubs. Indeed, Manchester United fans protesting about their clubs owners (presumably for the terrible crime of making money from said ownership while the club wins cups, leagues and championships) are reported to be:

Calling on their considerable contacts in Westminster and Whitehall, Manchester United supporters are to make the future of their club, and particularly the controversial, debt-driven regime of the Glazers, one of the issues of the forthcoming General Election.”

Reading Henry Winter’s uncritical piece (from which the quote above is taken) it strikes me that the Manchester United Supporters Trust is seeking to use political pressure merely to promote a takeover bid for the club. It really is as simple as that – the Trust wants to own the club and if it can't do it the honorable way through raising money and writing a cheque out for the current owners’ interest, it will enlist political campaigns to force the change through.

Football supporters are making a big mistake by letting government regulation in through the door. As I have said before – be careful what you wish for as it may come to pass. I have absolutely no doubt at all that government regulation would be bad for football, bad for supporters and bad for the clubs.
...

Use your own money....

***

Amid all the froth and anger about the "Death Tax", we are still staring like rabbits at the real scam in all this. The Sunday Telegraph "special report" on care of the elderly opens with this:

"Grace Young had lived for more than 50 years in the terraced house her husband Edward had worked hard to provide. Her only son, John, was brought up in the three-bedroomed home in Carshalton, south London; the couple intended the house to become his inheritance.

Last year, that dream was shattered. When Mrs Young, now widowed, and 87, became increasingly confused as the result of a rare syndrome, her son realised that she would need to move into a care home.

Under the current rules of "means-testing" that meant one thing: selling their much-loved family home to pay the fees. "

Allow me to translate. This couple are expecting the taxpayer - you and me - to pick up the tab for their Mum's care so they can inherit her house. They're not living in that house - they have their own "much-loved family" home somewhere else.

In just how many ways is that wrong?

....

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Football needs to show show leadership on gay players & homophobia

****

It was with a certain degree of gobsmacked incredulity that I listened to Gordon Taylor, Chief Executive of the footballers trade union, speaking about gay footballers – or rather trying to brush away the fact that there aren’t any openly gay footballers at the top level. Indeed were Taylor’s response to questions on the subject given in response to, let’s say, racism in top level sport we would face a huge outcry. Frankly, I’m amazed that we still tolerate the FA, Premier League and the PFA behaving like the three wise monkeys on this subject.

Here’s a bit of what Taylor said:

"It's not a straightforward issue and it would be unfair to ask an individual player to back a campaign like this in case they got targeted by football crowds,"

In his interview Taylor also cited the problems in the Church – as if they are in any way either relevant or comparable!

Sorry, Gordon, it is a straightforward issue – in any other business such discrimination would not be tolerated. I do not believe that there are no gay players in the premier league. I’m sure that the football authorities know there are gay players. I’m sure the players know. The media know for sure.

Anti-gay sentiment and abuse should be dealt with in exactly the same way and racist abuse. Through sanctions on clubs, exclusion of fans and the application of the law. There was a time when many clubs were reluctant to hire black players – that has changed. Should we not be looking to drive the same change for gay players too?

...

Friday, 12 February 2010

++URGENT: sycophantic cliche warning 18th February++

Health Authorities across the world are warning that a high risk of pious, smug and sycophantic cliches will occur next Thursday (18th February) as Barak Obama meets the Dalai Lama.

Authorities have long warned that the "smugons" emitted by Obama may interact badly with the "pions" produced by leading self-righteous figures such as the Dalai Lama. With the two sources meeting the concentration of pointless, cliched drivel across the airwaves could become intolerable for those of a more sensitive disposition.

"Anyone Chinese or holding any kind of right-wing or libertarian view is advised to avoid news broadcasts for the period of risk" advises a WHO Spokescreature; "exposure could cause palpitations, aggressive behaviour and axe-wielding."

The WHO advises those witnessing these responses to proceed carefully and not to use words like 'spiritual', 'leader' or 'human rights' as these may lead to more extreme acts up to an including violence or even self-harm. Medical services have stocked up on photographs of Margaret Thatcher and film clips of Ronald Reagan for use in such emergencies.

"We hope to contain any outbreak," said the WHO Spokescreature.

...

Friday Fungus: Mushrooms for dessert


I've been promising you so mushroom puddings for a while - but there's no point in reinventing the wheel. I know having mushrooms for your dessert seems odd but The Mushroom Channel (a truly wondrous resource for fungi fanantics) has featured one from Gourmet Fury - Mushroom Cardamom Rice Pudding with Dulce de Leche! (if you're really, really lazy rather than making dulce de leche the hard way just buy a can of Carnation Caramel!)

Enjoy!

....

No.......

***

I'm sure many of you are familiar with the kind of meeting where the Chief Executive paints the gloomy picture of the business - pay freezes, shorter hours, no promotion raises and the dread spectre of the 'R' word - redundancy. I spent yesterday morning in one of those meetings - depressing stuff.

So imagine my delight when opening my council e-mail to read this:

Councillor

LOCAL GOVERNMENT PAY AWARD 2010- 2011

We are writing to you as the UNISON members representing NJC workers in Bradford Council to make you aware of our members’ anger at the pay ‘freeze’ imposed on them for the 1 April 2010 – 2011 pay settlement. We believe that, as a councillor, you should be aware of this, particularly in a year of local – and the General – elections, when issues such as pay will obviously influence how our members vote. We are urging you to ask our council and the LGA to reconsider their support for an effective pay cut for our members this year.

There have been no negotiations over our pay this year. At the last meeting of the NJC Joint Secretaries – at which they were expecting to open negotiations – they were told that the Employers’ Side had decided that there would be no increase in pay for our members this year. We understand that there was cross-party consensus amongst LGA Group Leaders on this decision. We are surprised and disappointed at the decision itself and the manner in which it was arrived at. The consequences of it are likely to be very serious indeed – for our members, service users and for local government itself.....

The letter carries on in this mildly threatening vein for several more paragraphs ending with this:

Below-inflation pay increases in recent years have already left our members – your employees - struggling to make ends meet. As a councillor, we know that you will appreciate the vital contribution they make to local people in our local authority and will want to ensure that our council can continue to recruit and retain such dedicated staff. We are sure that you will be seeking their support to continue to provide vital services as redundancies and workloads increase, but they will be reluctant to do so with only a pay cut to reward them for their efforts! Their commitment is being severely challenged and you will appreciate that 1.6 million employees, their families and friends will be unlikely to show electoral support for those who appear to value them so little.

We would like to hear from you and would ask you to give us a response to the following questions:

Do you agree with this year’s pay cut for NJC workers in our council?
What was the budget for pay this year in its Medium Term Financial Plan in 2008-9?


How does this council intend to use the pay element of the formula grant from central Government?

If you support our members’ right to a pay increase this year, we would ask you to write to the Chairman of the LGA, Margaret Eaton, urging the LGA and the Local Government Employers to change their minds.

We look forward to a response to our letter.

With best wishes,


UNISON Rep


Well that just took the biscuit. I thought about writing a long, considered response but why should I bother?

Dear Unison Rep

Why should you get a pay rise when others (equally poorly paid and without your lovely index-linked final salary pension) are facing pay cuts - assuming of course they've kept their jobs.

You and your members don't have a "right" to a pay rise - you get one when it's affordable just like everyone else. And in case you haven't noticed there's not a great deal of spare cash around out there.

So do I support your case? In a word....

++++++++++NO++++++++++

Yours etc.


Cllr Simon Cooke

.....

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Regeneration ain't about sustainability or community. It's about people.

***
Something of a curate egg from Julian Dobson over at Living with Rats - a set of slides on regeneration that are challenging but sadly contradictory. Most worryingly though - given the reality of life in our modern day slums - Julian focuses on the touchy-feeling, greeny, sustainability, no-growth stuff that will to precisely and absolutely zero to help the poorest folk in our society. Here's some comments to the first six of his slides - I have been restrained.

Slide 1. The idea that we can infinitely add more to what we currently have underpins most 'regeneration' strategies.

After about ten years involved in regeneration and a period studying the past 40 years of regeneration strategies it seems odd that the same knee-jerk, anti-growth position opens up these slides. A cursory look at the primary regeneration investments since the early 1990s – City Challenge, SRB, Neighbourhood Renewal, New Deal for Communities – tells us that this isn’t the case. The focus has been on what Steve Hartley, then Chief Executive of Bradford Trident, called “making the place normal”. While there were job creation schemes and business support these made no distinction between types of business or between the private, public and not-for-profit sectors. Bluntly, it is untrue.

Slide 2: Our response to the financial crisis of 2008 was to prop up what we had. The banking system now is not fundamentally different to that of 2006.

I agree with the essential observation – that the response to the current banking crisis has been to save the banks (and the bankers). But what do we mean by ‘sustainable’ in this context – seems to me that the Obama (and Osborne) position of separating retail and speculation plus seeking smaller banks is more sensible than trying to reinvent economic theory with well-meant words and some reddish-green ideology. And one thing that should be made possible is for setting up a retail bank to be much easier – barriers to entry were one contributor to the crisis. Without schumpeterian renewal (a party colleague got into trouble for talking about creative destruction so I won’t) banks – and indeed other institutions including government – become ossified, become a problem not a solution.

Slide 3: To create new ideas, is it sensible to start in the old places? Was Google invented in a reference library and if it had been, what would it look like? We need to think laterally and creatively and stop being proprietorial about ideas.

Good words but is it meant? Show me the epochal, world-changing innovation that came as a result of government initiative? There are none – government doesn’t do creative, creative is scary. Government does “how big a piece of elastoplast do you want, sir?” The big changes – the massive innovations – have been in the private sector. And that is where future innovation will be driven from – unless, of course, you cut it off early by following the ideas implied in ‘slide one’!

Slide 4: We need to think too in terms of the natural lifespan of ideas, economies, and institutions. A process of growing, flourishing, maturing, expiring and recreating is something that adds vitality and vigour to our social, physical and economic fabric. Shouldn't we think of regeneration as the process of nurturing and assisting that constant change?

Now we’re getting silly. The “natural lifespan of ideas” – you mean that suddenly the ‘idea’ of freedom or philanthropy or equality suddenly ceases to have relevance? Or is it the idea of ‘evolution’ or ‘gravity’ that stops working? Maybe this is a call for creative destruction – for recognising that times change, that things are not set in stone. But did you say that in 1985 when they started the second round of pit closures? Did you say that in 1990s Birmingham as they watched their manufacturing industry move to China? Probably not. The sentiment of this slide is with us – people are getting used to the end of ‘jobs for life’ and for the personal responsibility that goes with that situation. But there’s still many who think the job of regeneration is simply to stop change happening – at least while it affects me!

Slide 5: There's a difference between that organic, assisted process and the directed, programme-driven forms of regeneration we've seen in the last three decades. The role of institutions should become one of nurturing and supporting what already exists and enabling it to grow, not one of constantly imposing grand strategies and plans.

And what precisely “already exists” on Seacroft Estate in Leeds? Or for that matter on a hundred other estates across the country? A culture of benefit dependency. A world where drink, fags and sex set the boundaries of life and the person in work is an exception rather than the norm. What are we nurturing here? What are we giving to these people? Have the schools done their job or are the teachers just a combination of childminder and prison warden? We – politicians, press, ‘experts’ – get shown round regeneration schemes. You’re being fooled – this is the East German tour not a real picture of the problem.

Slide 6: That means rethinking our approach to funding programmes, targets and accountability and creating new, hybrid organisations that bring together those who have a common interest in improving places and communities. Nobody has a monopoly of ideas and nobody should have a monopoly of implementation.

Much though it pains me to say so, we need to stop thinking at all about programmes, targets and schemes. Rather than sinking further into the collective groupthink we should consider the individuals – the young girl with three kids from two fathers, the lad who can write his name and recognise McDonalds but not much else, the thirtysomething bloke who has spent six of the past ten years in prison and the rest of the time waiting to go there, the obese 45 year old grandma so addled with drink she barely knows her own children let alone the grandkids. Schemes, institutions, programmes – all the superstructure of regeneration does nothing, has done nothing, for these people. The problem isn’t special programmes but the mainstream programmes of education, health and social care. Oh yes, plus a dreadful, debilitating, divisive and stifling benefits system. And we fund programmes to increase “benefit take-up”!

Lets be clear, I make my living from regeneration – just like a load of other comfortably off, intelligent, caring people living in nice places. There’s lots of lovely conferences, debates, seminars, workshops and sharings of best practice. And mostly it’s just an excuse to talk – little better than me sounding off on my blog here.

But let’s be clear. We have failed. Yes, you, me, Julian Dobson, Nick Falk, the Prince of Wales, Michael Heseltine, John Denham. We’ve failed. And we are going to fail again. And again. And again. Until we remember that salvation comes one soul at a time. Until we remember that people aren’t just some spit in a pool called “community”. Until we put an end to groupthink – to the crazy collectivist idea. To fancy dan chattering class nonsense like “sustainability” or “socially useful jobs”.

Until we give that girl, that lad, that bloke, that grandma some hope, some reason to do something different with their lives. A reason to smile, work, detox or slim. A reason to live not just exist.

....

On Markets...(or why lawyers should stick to the law)

***

The problem with lawyers is that they don’t understand economics. OK that’s not the only problem with lawyers and it is a problem they share with most politicians and nearly all of the political punditry. And the matter of markets is the most obvious example where this ignorant misunderstanding crops up. Our lawyers seem to think economics is somehow a matter either of policy or of choice. It is neither.

Here’s one lawyer, our dear friend and sceptic, Jack of Kent:

“The ongoing economic crisis is a good moment to test this faith in the Market deity.”

Now describing the market as a God (an approach we might expect from a sceptical atheist, I fear) is something of a convenient metaphor. The suggestion is that we operate with a faith in Adam Smith’s laissez faire dictum of “the invisible hand”. Indeed our economically semi-literate lawyer bases his whole argument on a rejection of faith – in this case a faith in the ‘benevolence’ of markets.

OK, I hear you all cry, that’s fine but isn’t this faith in markets what caused the problem? On one level this might be an argument but it is better put this way:

The credit crisis and consequent recession were a result of our faith in Government’s ability to manage markets not faith in markets.

Indeed, if dear Jack no longer believes in “markets” he enters the same strange world as those who believe the earth is flat or that God created the world in 4004BC.

Markets are a matter of observable fact. Our understanding of markets relates to the ways in which exchange takes place. What Adam Smith observed and subsequent economic theory has supported is that the more free the market operates the better is it at allocating scarce resources. This position is not without challenge – indeed economists, as befits good scientists, continue to explore the ideas that underlie the discipline’s core assumptions.

The point about the current problem isn’t that markets have “failed” but that our management of markets has failed. The credit crunch illustrates the failures of interventions in the market and the culpable markets in this case (finance and property) are perhaps the two most extensively managed markets in our mixed economies. By way of example:

Interest rates are controlled by central banks not the market
Levels of risk taken by banks are subject of regulatory audit
Banks are licensed, inspected and registered
Deposits (up to a given level) are guaranteed
Property rights are only exercisable with regulatory permission
Ownership and disposal of property is subject to registration
Government reserves the right to acquire at a price its agents determine


I’m sure there is much else besides these but these examples illustrate the point. The market – to use Jack’s inappropriate metaphor – being worshipped wasn’t a free one but a managed one. OK, the bankers wanted you to believe it was a free market just as government agents want you to believe that planning law is not the de facto nationalisation of property rights. But these are managed markets.

Don’t take this as a defence of banks. With the consent of their regulators, bankers screwed us over big time. But it was not the free operation of markets that did the damage. It was allowing banks and related financial businesses to capture the regulation of their markets. And in doing so to fix them to the benefit of both the bankers and of the Governments they “advised”.

The lesson of the credit crunch and the banking crisis is that you don’t put the fox in charge of the chicken coop. Sadly, I fear a new sleeker fox is signing up to run the new chicken run.

...

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Wednesday whimsy: Welcome to the sideshow...

***

"‘Scuse me sir, but how do you get to Westminster?"

I mean what a palaver – hours of debate, millions upon millions of frantic words, thousands of yards of film...for what? Would we, as a result of this great debate, answer the character question? Will we – or rather you – as ordinary folk stand a chance of being better served? Will you be able to get rid if you don’t want or are failed?

Sadly the great panjandrums of electoral reform don’t answer these questions preferring instead to wrap themselves in Cardhousian knots explaining how the reform will make everything fairer, more equal, shinier and closer to the people.

So beloved reader, I want you to sit back, gaze at the flowers, light your proverbial pipe and think for a few seconds. That’s right – think. In all these great thoughts did “let’s have a new electoral system that works just like the current system but not quite” enter you mind? In fact did “let’s have a new electoral system” enter your mind at all?

Of course not. You’ve more important things to consider such as:

...your children’s education, your Dad’s heart problems, the fact that the pub at the top of the road is shut, where the mortgage money is coming from this month, whether you’ll have a job next week, the amount of money it now takes to fill the car with petrol, why the council hasn’t filled in all the potholes caused by the recent freeze, if you’ll get a holiday this year, the need to buy the kids new uniforms for school, how the chocolate factory closing will affect your business, how you’re going to afford to pay into the pension this month, how much it will cost to remove the tree that’s blocking all the light from the front room, what sort of do to have for your husband’s 50th birthday, how you’re going to get little Wayne to football practice at the same time as Susan has to be a dance class, if the woman next door is having an affair with the butcher, what day is is that the recycling bins are put out, whether the jazz is on at the club tonight, how your teams chances of winning tonight look...

a thousand things will scuttle through your mind scuffling for the limited spaces at “front of mind”. Not one of them is electoral reform.

Parliament, with each passing year, becomes more powerless and less relevant. Our MPs have transformed from representatives applying their thoughts and ideas to better government into glorified caseworkers. Debating the way they get to Westminster is at about their level – the level of student debate.

It’s a sideshow.

...

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

We need to change our POLITICAL system not our VOTING system

***

Today our politicians are obsessing about democracy – or rather about the process of democracy (which for most of is politicians is far more important than what we might mean by the idea of democracy). Central to the debate today will be occult arguments by anorak-wearing political obsessives about the precise mathematics of this or that system of voting. Nuances and semantics of the meaning placed on “proportionality” or “fairness” will be paraded – MPs will feel that, for once, they are engaged in a debate that matters. They are wrong!

So rest assured dear reader I am not going to lay out before you the whys and wherefores of each voting type, to discuss their merits or meaning, to ponder the significance of Arrow’s Theorem* or even to speculate on the motivations behind Gordon’s damascene conversion to the cause of the instant re-run. Instead, I propose to argue that the method of election is a matter of monumental inconsequence next to some other concerns.

And those concerns? Firstly there is the issue of accountability. Secondly there is the matter of selection. And third there is the question of what we elect MPs to do. If our parliament debates the arcane of voting systems it does so without answering the real questions around our democracy – how we allowed MPs to get beyond the law, why those MPs (or most of them) felt empowered to indulge in an exercise of blatant exploitation and why we allow them to create a special, privileged and protected position for the political party.

None of these questions – how we hold MPs to account, how candidates are selected and what we the people want our MPs to do – are addressed by changing the system of voting. That merely creates the illusion of a substantial change without making the real changes we need. And those changes?

Direct election of the executive
Terms limits for all politicians at whatever level
The power of recall
Ending state funding for political parties
Repealing the Registration of Political Parties Act
Restricting all election campaigning to the promotion of individual candidates

Without these changes the voting system – how we choose – is of little or no relevance and will do nothing to restore public confidence in politics, let alone enthusiasm!

*Although I do think that discussing the merits or otherwise of voting systems without understanding Arrow's Theorem and its proofs is like discussing a football match without considering the offside law!

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Monday, 8 February 2010

"First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." - thoughts on the incentives to extend the scope of law

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In his book, “The Armchair Economist”, Steven Landsburg opens Chapter 1 with this sentence:

“Most of economics can be summed up in four words: “people respond to incentives”. The rest is commentary.”

So when I say that lawyers have an incentive to increase the amount of law, I do so with the weight of theory behind me. Lawyers also have an incentive to make it difficult to become a lawyer – not because only clever people can do law but because by controlling the numbers of lawyers the profession is able to seek higher rents from the system. Lawyers also have an incentive to widen the competence of the law – by which I mean the areas in which lawyers act and are paid.

Under these circumstances it clearly does not make sense for the lawyers – with their incentive to maximise rents – to be in charge of the system. Yet that is the case. There is no substantive lay perspective on the administration of our legal system. Moreover, the conspiracy theorist might argue that the number of lawyers in parliament reflects a further aspect of this response to incentive since the proximate beneficiaries of the passing of statute law are always lawyers.

I don’t think that there is a secret cabal of lawyers masterminding all this – the Law Society and the Bar Council are pretty open about their primary roles as the trades unions for lawyers (and very successful ones too). And, with their bewigged authority and seats in the upper house, the top lawyers are accorded a privileged position from which to control the operation and administration of the law.

It seems to me that any intelligent lay person should be capable of hearing argument and coming to a judgment relating to that argument. Indeed, it should be the case that any intelligent and informed lay person is capable of making the argument itself – a barrister is merely someone who makes a profession of being good at the making of argument.

Putting lawyers in charge of the law is akin to giving Ronnie Biggs the keys to the safe – asking for us all to be royally, and charmingly screwed over. Yet that is what we have done – we have put lawyers in charge of the legal system, we have allowed them to create privileged closed shops and we have permitted the extension of legal competence beyond its proper role within the courts to all aspects of business and personal life.

As Shakespeare put it:

Cade:I thank you, good people—there shall be no money; all shall eat and drink on my score, and I will apparel them all in one livery,that they may agree like brothers, and worship me their lord.

Dick:The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.


Cade:Nay, that I mean to do.

Henry The Sixth, Part 2 Act 4, scene 2, 71–78

Lawyers really are an obstacle to freedom. They don’t mean it that way but their interests and the incentives we give them make it so.

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Sunday, 7 February 2010

Free speech: some lessons on politeness from the 18th Century


Free speech is a pretty simple concept. It means I can say what I like, doesn’t it? Perhaps it does but what about deliberate offence? Bullying language? Prejudicial language? Where does the limit to free speech lie? Today we have become less worried about sexual swearwords or blasphemy that would have been the case with our forebears. But where they worried greatly about “fuck”, “shit” and “Jesus Christ”, we now obsess about “nigger”, “poofter” and even “paddy”.

Perhaps we are right, maybe making such prejudicial words beyond the pale is correct. For sure, using them is rather asking for a smack in the gob but we do appear to have lost – among all the legislative frenzy – the idea of politeness. Yes, politeness is often a deception – a white lie (are we still allowed to say that). But is its loss making it harder for us to justify the defence of free speech?

In his magnificent examination of English culture in the 18th Century, “The Pleasure of Imagination”; John Brewer looks at the conflict between politeness and sensibility:

“Many of the ideals of sensibility seem to contrast with those of politeness – authenticity rather than show, spontaneous feeling rather than artifice, private retreat rather than urban sociability, the virtues of humble rank rather than high station. They appear to stand in opposition to the values of polite London society.” (Brewer, The Pleasures of the Imagination, Pg 115)

Such a comment reminds us of the explosion of “spontaneous” feeling at the death of Diana, of Oscar winner bursting into tears and rambling about their inspiration and of the slight discomfort some of us feel at the seeming need for every comedy to have at least three swear words in every sentence.

However, politeness was not enforced by statute. There were no laws requiring polite behaviour in the 18th Century. People were polite because it was expected of them and for them to play any role in society failing at such expectation was to risk being rejected. Today we have begun to seek legal remedy to the enforcement of selected standards of behaviour – these may be the vast collection of law and case around so-called “equalities” or the growing judgmentalism of “standards boards”.

If we are to rescue free speech from its emasculation by self-interested groups and their public agents, then we have at some point to challenge the regulation of language that supports the interventions of these agencies. Conservatives should ask whether it is better to regulate politeness through society rather than through the law. It is incredibly rude to call someone a “paki” but is it really any ruder than calling that person a “cunt”? The law says it is since it privileges one word as a special condition subject to the possibility to punishment under the criminal law while the other remains just very rude.

I am not one of those people who think that the entire edifice of “equalities” should go. But I do think that the regulation of language through the criminal law is wrong and that those aspects of equalities legislation should be repealed. And the growing collection of “standards” applied to councillors, doctors, public servants and the like are also attempts to use the law to control speech – breeching the principle of liberty.

Free speech comes at a price – that of offence. But since we cannot ban or bar every possible word or combination of words it cannot work to select a few words for special treatment. However, I would point out that using offensive language has a societal price – getting thumped is part of that price but the other part is to colour our view of that person to their detriment.

So – as a good Tory – let’s look to our history. And teach our children this:

“Politeness created a complete system of manners and conduct based on the art of conversation. It places the arts and imaginative literature at the centre of its aim to produce people of taste and morality because they were considered a means of achieving a polite and virtuous character.” (Brewer, Pg 111)

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