Archive Page 2


Might the “left” be right for once?

OK so this is not strictly a left/right thing but generally lefties love the idea of neo-Keynesian deficit spending to rejuvenate the economy and generally righties prefer the idea of letting things run their course and eventually returning to growth by allowing the free market to unwind imbalances in order to invest resources in the most productive way. But what if there was a set of circumstances where the sum of individual actions was actually working against the re-allocation of resources to productive industries?

I cannot claim to represent anyone apart from myself. However if there are lots of people stuck in the same situation as me then it might explain why the economy is only growing feebly and why this is the worst recovery for a century.

The free-marketeers tell us that people are much better at spending their own money than the state is at spending other people’s money. On the face of it this makes total sense. I can decide which home or phone or electricity or food suits me the best given my requirements and amount I am willing or able to spend. But might there be a situation where implementing my least-worst financial options is actually reducing my lifetime earnings capacity?

A quick back-of-the-envelope estimate reckons that I am putting between 30% and 45% of my net income each month into paying down debt. This is because I am trapped between the mortgage loan-to-value ratio that I borrowed at and the loan-to-value ratio that I think might be available when I need to re-mortgage in a scarily small number of months time. I am converting income into capital as fast as I can without starving in the process.

But if lots of people are doing the same thing then our incomes are not being converted into investment or consumption. And maybe this is why the economy is not exactly booming despite very low rates and a huge public deficit.

Could it be possible that in this situation the government might actually be better at spending my money than I am? For example, what if taxes were raised slightly to pay for much-needed investment in projects that would improve the economy, such as transport and communications infrastructure? As Stephanie Flanders points out in her blog, because infrastructure projects are slow to come on stream this might not give us the boost we need now.

What about if taxes were raised slightly in order to underwrite more mortgage lending? That might actually increase the amount I and people in my position have to spend on goods and services. Unfortunately that wouldn’t be a very clever idea in the longer term because it would just prolong the required rebalancing of the economy.

There do not seem to be any easy answers to this. Unfortunately, from my “ideological” position to the smaller-state side of the political spectrum, it does seem to me that the power to kick-start the economy does lie exclusively in the government’s hands.

Then again, maybe we should not be expecting an artificial boost. Maybe the only possible way forward is several more years of grinding our way through our debts, putting – literally – our houses in order, and not expecting any easy return to the good ol’ days.

In the meantime, while Vince and George work all this out, I shall mostly be consuming cathode rays for entertainment.


On perspective

It’s really easy for me to get caught up in a vicious spiral of stress and worry. It’s silly and I always kick myself after the air has cleared but it’s just part of my less-than-ideally-balanced personality. I can get into a big old flap about something not very important. Often, this is linked to my poor communications skills.

I won’t recount the full boring detail of a pickle I got myself into in the last couple of weeks, but I was getting very wound up about it. I lost sleep over the issue, was in a bad mood and wasted time thinking about it. I worried about how to broach the subject without burning too many bridges. I stressed that I might be utterly, utterly wrong. I flapped about whether it was even something worth flapping about. An opportunity arose to work my “point” into another, highly-relevant matter and I sent an email to the person concerned with a touch of a grain of a subtle hint of the thing I was rapidly becoming obsessed about. OK it was a massive rant bashed out in a fury of angry stabbing fingers on a keyboard.

The person concerned is a laid-back kind of fellow and immediately realised what I was getting at and called me. Problem solved in about three minutes. Well done BE. Way to waste precious time and effort. Way to ruin your own day. Way to potentially really piss someone off for no reason. Luckily it was water off a duck’s back.

I have come to the conclusion that a lot of people are extremely bad at:

a) Using their time efficiently. Time that could be spent doing something which would actually improve our existences in one way or another goes straight down the tubes instead.

b) Having any idea what they are good and bad at. I think people are really poor at knowing what they are really poor at. Worse, we are often poor at knowing what we are good at. Sometimes we have to be told that we are good at things. This isn’t necessarily a confidence thing, we just have no way of objectively measuring and comparing certain skills.

c) How much they are or are not appreciated by other people. Have you ever noticed that the people most likely to be shunned for being an arsehole believe themselves to be extremely popular and influential?

d) Knowing what is important and what is not important.

There seems to be a lot of lack of perspective out there at the moment.


Our friends in the whole country

Our Friends in the North is a British television drama serial, produced by the BBC and originally broadcast in nine episodes on BBC Two in early 1996. Telling the story of four friends from the city of Newcastle upon Tyne in North East England over 31 years from 1964 to 1995, it also brought in real political and social events specific to Newcastle and Britain as a whole during the era portrayed, including general elections, police and local government corruption, the UK miners’ strike (1984–1985) and the Great Storm of 1987. Publicity material for the serial used the tagline “Three decades, four friends and the world that shaped their lives”.

The serial is commonly regarded as one of the most successful BBC television dramas of the 1990s, described by The Daily Telegraph as “A production where all… worked to serve a writer’s vision. We are not likely to look upon its like again.” In a poll of industry professionals conducted by the British Film Institute in 2000, it was 25th in a list of the 100 Greatest British Television Programmes of the 20th century.

It was also a controversial production, as its stories were partly based on real politicians and political events, and several years passed before it was adapted from a play performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, due in part to the BBC’s fear of litigation.

I watched this series a couple of years ago, rented from LoveFilm, having missed it when it was shown originally. If you haven’t already seen it I highly recommend it. It provides a snapshot of major issues in political, economic and social Britain at important junctures in recent history, starting with 1979 and finishing as Major’s government slid, unstoppable, into the mire.

One of its most important themes is corruption. Corruption of the planning system resulting in concrete towers that did not work. Corruption of local politics. Corruption of the police. Corruption, corruption, corruption: the disease that affects us all. The disease that Britain’s elite likes to claim is minimal and disorganised. The lack of this disease which is supposed to put this country right up at the moral high table of international superiority.

Not looking so bloody virtuous now, are we?

Some would say that in a country where so many decisions are made by central government, in a country with a parliament that both produces and checks the government, in a country with little political plurality, in a country where politicians are drawn from a tiny gene pool and where most who find career success in other fields would not be seen dead on the campaign stump, in a country where the media’s opinion-formers are drawn from the same tiny gene pool, is quite likely to turn out to be corrupt to the core. Those people would seem to be correct.

Not long ago, Britain’s ruling class were basking in the reflected glory of the Arab Spring. Look! they shouted, some dodgy countries are waking up to their corrupt and undemocratic regimes! How slow they were to wake up to how systematically unpleasant their countries were! How stupid of their population to have put up with it so long! Look how enlightened we are in comparison!

Not looking so pious now, are they?

It turns out that some of our most important institutions have been turned to dust by corruption, mismanagement and political kowtowing. This isn’t must about Rupert Murdoch. This is about spinelessness and pork-barrelling. This is about keeping one’s principles private to avoid appearing out of line with the consensus. This is as much about the corruption of money and favours as about the corruption of not standing up and saying no, enough is enough. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing” – have we not seen that in spades recently?

So now what?

It’s time for a proper (moderate, British-style) revolution. We need to get away from the central decision-making machine. We need proper localism. We need direct elections of more political posts. We need to smash up the party system. We need proper parliamentary pluralism and scrutiny of government policy. We need to set constitutional limits on what the government of the day can do. We need a major clear-out of personnel in Whitehall and the political parties. We need mass retirements to country houses for the senior executives of our major institutions, both public and private.

This is only the first crack of thunder in what will turn out to be a slow but important political storm. Let’s hope it clears the air.


Can Europe have a good crisis?

The Lisbon Strategy intended to deal with the low productivity and stagnation of economic growth in the EU, through the formulation of various policy initiatives to be taken by all EU member states. The broader objectives set out by the Lisbon strategy were to be attained by 2010.

It was adopted for a ten-year period in 2000 in Lisbon, Portugal by the European Council. It broadly aimed to “make Europe, by 2010, the most competitive and the most dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”.

The rest, as we know, is history: southern Europe failed to become more competitive and went on a cheap money bender; the gap between the industrious EU countries and Club Med widened; massive debts were built up by governments and householders in many places; the EU economy is teetering on the edge of the abyss. Or to put it in EUrospeak, progress towards Europe-wide economic competitiveness was “unconvincing”.

What now? Well the political classes in the usual suspect countries presumably expected to carry on as they had always before: by inflating and devaluing the results of their persistent deficits. They must have hoped that the Euro would be less like the Deutschmark and more like the Escudo. Whatever their actual thought processes, they never told their voters that by adopting the currency of an industrial giant would mean a change in economic mentality.

But is this now a good opportunity for European countries to get a move-on with the reforms they should have started making thirty years ago? Haven’t we seen something like this before? As a keen reader of The Economist in the late 1990s (no, I did not have a girlfriend) I recall countless articles banging on about how Germany in particular had a lot to learn from the British revolution under Thatcher and Major. The argument was that enough people in Germany were comfortable for there to be little appetite for serious reform. This turned out to be too simplistic: Germany took a more measured and iterative path, not needing the crash-bang-wallop emergency reforms that Britain did to stop itself completely imploding in the 1980s. New Germany is booming.

It is not controversial to say that deregulation, privatisation and proper competition can revolutionise an economy in the doldrums. Britain, New Zealand and several former-Eastern Bloc countries prove that. But it’s not easy for politicians to go from here to there. Often there has to be a crisis before voters will accept their medicine. Britain was forced into spending cuts in 1978 by the IMF. New Zealand virtually went bust before it could revitalise its prospects. We all know what happened in Eastern Europe. Most electorates simply aren’t as sensible as Zie Germans.

Whilst I am inherently against even further detaching the politicians from the people they pretend to represent, it is an obvious fact that sometimes even sensible people need to be forced to do the right thing. The diet can always start tomorrow. Whether that means that the technocrats in Brussels need to take charge in the way they have over the continent’s competition regime – for example – or the national parliaments themselves somehow assert themselves in the face of popular discontent I wouldn’t like to suggest.

Europe should be the best place in the world to live and work. We are mostly free, well-educated and enjoy excellent infrastructure. We have world-beating universities and industries. The continent has plenty of space and natural resources, including intellectual assets. We have labour mobility and supposedly free markets. The best bits of Europe are the best in the world. The worst bits need to do some serious catching up. Maybe this financial crisis is exactly the kick up the arse that the continent needs.


The art of not understanding

I don’t understand Northern Ireland.

I know a little bit about the way that Ireland was controlled and then planted by the English. I know that it was torn apart time and again by the English elite. I understand that a corrupt Parliament refused to lift trade barriers in order to prevent the potato famine. I understand that plans for Home Rule were stymied by vested interests and global politics. I understand the bitterness of living under a state and constitution that does not feel like one’s own. I understand the massive injustice that was meted out by the tyranny of the majority.

But I thought we were largely past all that. I thought that the issue had mostly been de-toxified. I thought that a modern understanding of human rights and equality under the law had started to put an end to all of the hatred. I thought that devolution had brought an element of self-determination to the country. I don’t understand why it is kicking off now.


Putting a price on integrity

I’ve been thinking about the people who have been selling their souls to the Devil that is the newspaper industry. I’ve been trying to imagine what I might do if, say, someone asked me to dial in to someone’s voicemail in return for a nice brown envelope full of cash; or if I had some confidential information on my work computer that could be extremely embarrassing or useful if widely distributed; or if I would invent some crap to make a headline. I’ve tried to work out why it is, exactly, that I would tell the buyer to shove it when so many others do sell out.

Is it morality? What even is morality? For me, morals appear as a kind of background reluctance or urge to do something without necessarily needing a logical stimulus. But morality itself is not enough. Some people do not grow up in a moral framework. Others analyse their learned behaviour and discard the bits they don’t fancy. Still others would do things they thought were immoral if they thought there was no chance of getting caught. Defining one’s behaviour in terms of morality doesn’t quite cut it for me.

So does everyone have their price? How much would someone have to offer me before I switched off that reluctance? It’s hard to say, hand on heart, that there is no offer that could not sway me. What about if there were two competing needs, for example? Screw one person over to help a thousand? Do this or your neighbour dies? Save the mother, lose the child? Not so easy to take the moral high ground now, is it?

But the current media-political storm is not concerned with such impossible choices, luckily. Nobody was going to die if The Screws didn’t run that story about Will Young and Ashley Cole.

So how highly do you rate your integrity? If you are Glen Mulcaire, not highly I suggest. If you are Rebekah Brooks, a lot higher but still quite low. Because you can only sell your integrity once. Most of us trade almost exclusively on our reputation or integrity. If people who might want to buy our services decided they no longer trusted us, our careers would be over in a shot. Some of the actors in this farce are going to go to prison. Can you put a price on that?

So let’s start from scratch. I need to earn enough money to live comfortably for at least another fifty years. I need to not go to prison. If I do something criminal I need to make sure that I can escape to somewhere where the law can’t get me, and that is going to cost more. I have to assume that I can’t work again in anything other than a casual, poorly-paid job. So to buy my integrity you are going to have to pay me as much as I can hope to earn during the remainder of my career, and you are going to have to top that up with the means to escape and live pleasantly in a country that doesn’t have an extradition treaty with the UK. And that place is probably going to be expensive and shit.

So I put a value of something like £15 million on my own integrity. So if you want me to do something naughty, that’s the kind of money you are going to have to come up with. I do hope that the corrupt police officers who smashed straight through the reputation of themselves and their colleagues got at least that £15 million. I do hope that Brooks and Coulson have been earning that kind of money from Mr Murdoch. I do hope that Johann Hari got a nice big sum for the interviews he invented.

However, I strongly suspect that the above have all sold themselves rather short.


This is London

On 7th July 2005 some of us were nervous, because we didn’t know what was going on. Yet we did not panic, we did not run scared. We tried to find out what was going on using the available methods. We tried to contact friends and family to ensure they were OK. We listened to our radios and kept an eye on the news websites.

On 8th July 2005 we picked ourselves up, dusted ourselves down and got on those trains, tubes and buses and went to work as normal.

Because we are London, and we won’t be bullied.


“News of the World”?

Britain is at war in Libya and Afghanistan. Europe is in the throes of a financial crisis that could cause a banking explosion not seen since the end of Fight Club. The economy is stuffed. The public sector has been striking. Teenagers are being murdered daily* on the streets of London.

And yet the media are consumed by a story about how the media get their stories?

* if you really want the edge taken off your day, follow @metpoliceuk.

PS If you are a Twitterer, please follow me as well and make me feel all warm, fuzzy and popular.


On damp squibs…

A squib is a miniature explosive device used in a wide range of industries, from special effects to military applications. It resembles a tiny stick of dynamite, both in appearance and construction, although with considerably less explosive power. Squibs consists of two electrical leads which are separated by a plug of insulating material, a small bridge wire or electrical resistance heater, and a bead of heat-sensitive chemical composition in which the bridge wire is embedded.

While most modern squibs used by professionals are insulated from moisture, older uninsulated squibs needed to be kept dry in order to ignite, thus a “damp squib” was literally one that failed to perform because it got wet. Often misheard as “damp squid”, the phrase “damp squib” has since come into general use to mean anything that fails to meet expectations.

Up to 750,000 public sector employees are to go on strike today in protest against being asked to contribute a little bit more towards their retirements. A friend of mine believes that strikes are just a form of pay bargaining and no more selfish than any other form and should not be decried in principle. I tend to agree: it’s not as if a state teacher can – at the moment – sack his or her employer and move to find better conditions in the way that those of us who work in the market economy can.

However for a public sector strike to be effective it has to garner public support. After all, if the people who ultimately pick up the tab can’t be persuaded that the strikers are more valuable than their current pay package suggests then the battle is lost. Not many parents are going to lose sleep over a day’s lost provision from an education system that cannot teach significant numbers of children to read and write before they get to secondary school. Voters will not barricade Parliament to demand that UK Border Agency staff are protected from the ravages of financial reality. They will simply try to minimise the disruption caused to their day. [As a childless net contributor to the public finances who gets no employer or state support for my retirement savings I am particularly unsympathetic. However when it comes to political strikes, not even Bob Crow can ruin my day.]

How do we know that nobody really supports the strikers? Union man Red Ed and his puppet-master Dr Strangelove don’t even support them. My colleague who thinks that Gordon Brown was the best Prime Minister since Chorleywood doesn’t have the slightest bit of sympathy.

What the leaders and gormless followers of the amusingly-named Public and Commercial Services Union seem to have forgotten is that everyone is having to make do with less. The British tax-paying public look at Athens via their TV screens and say hmm, we can probably deal with our own fiscal hole with a little more grace.


Always ready to disappoint

Some readers may already know that I am an occasional football spectator. In Buenos Aires several years ago I could not miss out on the chance visit to the famous stadium at La Boca. Getting a ticket proved surprisingly complicated and easy at the same time. The hostel I was staying at tried to get me and my then travel buddy to go on an expensive trip organised by their guys but we decided to try and sort it out ourselves. This was the era just after the minor readjustment of the exchange rate so while the tourist industry wanted us to buy our tickets in dollars we preferred to go to the stadium and pay in local currency. Anyway we found tickets just in time for kick-off and in we went. It was a rather lacklustre match against a very poor team in what I think was the Argie equivalent of the FA Cup. The atmosphere was electric, though.

I find that some (enough) football fans are always ready to disappoint with their behaviour. At the end of a recent match I went to at Old Trafford, a small number of away fans reacted to defeat by breaking as many seats as they could on their way out. My gang made a quiet and swift exit… En route back to the car we saw a pair of United teens having a kiddy punch-up. Their side had won!! What might their reaction have been in defeat??

Anyway back to the point of this. Shortly after my return from Argentina I went up to Brum for a mate’s birthday. I had travelled up on the train with a few friends and we were waiting for our lift from the station to our host’s house. I was wearing my Boca Juniors replica shirt. A middle-aged local stormed up to us and demanded to know why I was wearing the shirt. “You can’t wear that shirt!” he barked.

He was underwhelmed by my reply: “Why, are you a River Plate fan?”.

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mail @ behindblueeyes . co . uk


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