Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Well it cheered me up!

West Ham 4 Manchester United 0

After a thoroughly rubbish day this is the kind of cheering up I needed. Simple, straightforward and emphatic.



Monday, 29 November 2010

Anti-cuts protesters - wrong but romantic!

A protester hangs from the projector in Lewisham Council Chamber (photo courtesy of Cllr. Jenni Clutten) - a small part of a protest against "the cuts". Presumably those being outlined by Steve Bullock, Lewisham's elected mayor. And I understand that outside there's a mini-riot with shield-waving cops, dogs, horses and folk waving placards.

Now I may not support their cause. I may believe that we have to make significant reductions is what the government spends - to free citizens and to get our nation on a sustainable fiscal footing. But a lot of me applauds the fact that some people - worried, concerned, even angry about what their council is doing - have taken time on a freezing Monday in November to protest. And to do so with vigour.

Too often - whether in the big place at Westminster or in Council chambers up and down the country - decisions are made affecting all of us that we barely notice. In Bradford we've discussed a significant reorganisation, the financial implications of the June budget and the restructuring of education without a peep from "the people". No protests, no anger...not even something akin to mild irritation.

I can take it. I'm quite happy to make my case in front of protesters - to raise my voice above theirs and be heard. It's about being held to account.

So well done Lewisham protesters - definitely wrong but romantic!


Secrecy is inevitable and probably necessary


Secrecy is necessary.

I don’t say this as some form of defence for authoritarian government, for the gagging of journalists or to defend “national security”. These are spurious explanations for secrecy.

No, we need secrecy. And shall have that secrecy.

To illustrate, let me tell you a story about a former colleague, now an MP. Whenever there was something he wanted to say – a discussion needed – he would suggest we went for a walk. At the time, I assumed that the reason was to allow us a talk and smoke – but now I realise that the point was to avoid being overheard and to ensure that anything said was unattributable. Secrecy was protected since only the two of us knew what was said and, as importantly, every thing said was deniable. I know a great deal about that former colleague.

The theft of diplomatic cables and their transfer to a third party has been lauded by some as a kind of ultimate freedom of information success. Yet if we stop and think for a minute or two, we’ll realise that the result of these ‘leaks’ – the consequence of insecure systems – will be to end the documentation of opinion and analysis. This creates a less transparent, riskier and more corruptible policy and decision-making process. We have seen the degree to which our masters are trustworthy and having a yet more opaque system would act only to increase the opportunity for self-interest and greed to dominate choices made by politicians, civil servants and other public servants.

You may revel in this new age of open-ness – where theft is excusable because of some cod interpretation of public interest. But we will all pay for it since the response of governments will be to make undocumented decisions wherever possible. We will become a land governed even more by tittle-tattle, back-stabbing and slander rather than an more open, more democratic society.


Sunday, 28 November 2010

Snow (or a figment of your imagination?)

This photograph was taken yesterday at Studley Royal - a fabulous crisp day with the fresh snow crunching beneath our feet under a clear blue sky and bright winter sunshine.

And of course we don't get any of this now do we? Or may be some people should own up to saying silly things and eat their words?

However, the warming is so far manifesting itself more in winters which are less cold than in much hotter summers. According to Dr David Viner, a senior research scientist at the climatic research unit (CRU) of the University of East Anglia,within a few years winter snowfall will become "a very rare and exciting event".

"Children just aren't going to know what snow is," he said*

So there you go, folks! In what is now a third cold winter (or looking that way) with plenty of snow and not just in North Yorkshire, the global warming argument looks ever more shaky. However, one observation I'd make is that snow was a pretty rare and exciting event in 1960s South London too!

*H/T to Old Holborn for the link

Hands off my beer, Mr Cameron

The thin end of the wedge is being gently inserted:

The coalition will follow a formula first used by Asda, the supermarket chain, in setting the price, which is intended to be a major weapon in the battle against binge drinking.

The formula, aimed at clamping down on "loss leader" deals, means that no outlet will be able to sell any alcoholic drink for below the cost of duty on the product, plus VAT.

If they do they are likely to lose their licence to sell alcohol as well as face fines.

I can hear you telling me to calm down. Saying that this isn't the advent of a steep downhill road to prohibition - to the 'denormalisation' of alcohol. It's just a little 'nudge' to get us to improve our drinking habits.

And, dear reader, you are wrong. This is that slender little sliver - the first step towards a semi-prohibition, to the medicalisation of alcohol:

"What I would want to see is a minimum price of 50 pence per unit of alcohol, across the board. This sounds like a step in the right direction, but it falls well short of the kinds of changes that I think we need to see."

The authentic voice of the medical prohibitionist lobby there! And his target isn't binge drinking or anti-social behaviour but:

"This doesn't go anywhere near far enough to make a difference. It won't hit wine at all, and it doesn't look like it will have much impact on people drinking other types of alcohol."

So this nannying fussbuckets will continues with their campaign - first for minimum pricing, then for control of the licensing process, then for higher levels of duty, then for plain packaging...and so on and so on. This change opens up - justifies, if you will - the setting of drink prices by Government. How long before we have Government liquor shops and pubs open for just three hours and evening?

Don't say you weren't warned.


Economic forecasting, inflation and the 21st century bankers' ramp

The question of inflation has again been on my mind. Not the usual concern about how inflation is being used as a stealth tax but a more technical concern. One reflected in this quote from a short piece by Andrew Sentence, a member of the Bank of England’s Monetary Policy Committee (MPC):

Bank's inflation forecasts have consistently underestimated the upside impact from rising global energy and commodity prices and persistently overstated the downward pressure on inflation from spare capacity in the UK economy.

Put simply, since 2007 the Bank of England has consistently got its inflation forecasts wrong and the error has nearly always been to underestimate the rate. And while this may seem to be a technical consideration, we should recognise that the result of this under-estimation has been a monetary strategy predicated on the expectation of deflation during a period when, in fact, inflation rates were rising. There is no doubt in my mind that this error – compounded over time – is damaging our economy.

But why do we make the error? I am not minded to consider that it is some form of dark conspiracy intended to manipulate the economy in the interests of a corrupted banking system (although at times it does seem that way). Perhaps it lies in that quote from Andrew Sentence – we are wedded to the idea of recession representing idle capacity. Of great machines standing unused, waiting for glimmers of hope – those legendary green shoots – before surging once again into action.

Yet the truth is that – even in manufacturing and distribution – businesses simply do not hold large amounts of spare capacity. Just-in-time processes, outsourcing and a more flexible labour market (domestically and internationally) have made that unnecessary. Just look at the rate of job creation in the productive sector since growth began again in the UK:

…the UK economy has returned to growth more strongly than most expected. UK GDP has grown by 2.8pc over the past year – ahead of the pace of recovery in the early stages of the previous two recoveries.

Employment has risen by around 350,000 since early 2010. And manufacturing industry has recorded the strongest growth since 1994, supported by strong global growth and a competitive exchange rate.

All of which is, of course, contributing to inflation. Indeed when we look at the world market prices for primary commodities – wheat, oil, gas, copper, coffee – we see buoyant, rising prices driven by growing international demand. And this is driving inflation. Unless of course you’re Paul Krugman – who may be a Nobel Prize winning economist but believes that rising commodity prices are a signal of deflation!

It seems to me that economic forecasting – whether it be growth, inflation or employment – has become less reliable because it is stuck with models created to describe a pre-internet, manufacturing economy rather than today’s more flexible and responsive business environment. None of this suits the banks – who are bothered about all those, now unsecured, property loans on their books rather than about the real economy. And sadly – as we’ve seen in the UK, in the USA and tragically in Ireland – our political masters are so in hock to the banks (in order to keep all those expensive public services going) they’ll damage the real productive economy rather than allow the truth about banks, government and property to come out into the open.

…so maybe it really is a bankers’ ramp?


Saturday, 27 November 2010

A thought on the death of Bernard Matthews...

You know the guy - the fat bloke who sold all those crappy processed turkeys and such. Who Jamie Oliver didn't like because kids preferred his twizzlers to the fine, healthy vegetables that Jamie & the Food Fascists (now that's a band name if ever there was one) felt we should be eating so as to avoid terrible deaths at a young age.

I have to admit that we don't eat turkey much. Not for any noble reason but because most of it - including Bernard's - is dry, tasteless and uninspiring. But despite this I can still admire Bernard Matthews and will urge others to be more like him and less like the righteous fussbuckets. And, of course, Jamie Oliver is much like Bernard too - made shed loads of dosh from building up a personal brand that has something to do with food.

But mostly with Bernard its the business success that I like. The fact that you can turn 20 turkey eggs and a paraffin heater into a multi-million pound business reminds us that achievement isn't really about exams and degrees and chartered status. It's about hard work, initiative, creativity and probably more hard work on top of that (which perhaps explains my relative lack of success). Plus flexibility:

Refusing to give in, he tried again – on a much grander scale. In 1955, backed by a £2,500 loan, he bought Great Witchingham Hall, a dilapidated 80-roomed Elizabethan manor outside Norwich which had once been the home of John Norris, man of letters. Matthews reckoned that, at 5p a square foot, it was considerably cheaper than the 30p a square foot he would have to invest to build his own turkey sheds.

Apart from the bedroom in which he and his wife Joyce lived, he turned the house over to turkeys, hatching them in the living room, rearing them in the bedrooms and slaughtering them in the kitchens.

So when we're thinking about student loans (£2,500 was a load of money in 1950 and Bernard paid it back without a quibble and without protection or discount) and the end of jobs for life in the public sector let's spare a thought for the Bernard Matthews of this world. For without their ideas, creativity and hard work we'd still be a poor country. It is enterprising people like Bernard Matthews that lie behind all the good things we have (as well as turkey twizzlers).
We should celebrate them more.


Friday, 26 November 2010

"I am a socialist..."

Yet again we’re discussing what on earth the term “socialist” means. And I guess if Ed Miliband wants to be prime minister we need to understand what exactly he means when he says – following an admission to being a socialist - that:

I’m not embarrassed about it. I’ll tell you why I’m not embarrassed about it. Am I a socialist? Look, my dad was a... he would have considered himself a socialist too, but he would have said we need to have public ownership of everything. I don’t... or many of the most important things of society. I don’t subscribe to that view. What I do say is that there are big unfairnesses in our society, and part of the job of government is to bring about social justice and to tackle those unfairnesses. And that’s why I’m a politician, that’s why I’m in politics.

Because quite frankly I haven’t the faintest inking of what on earth Ed Miliband is prattling on about. Indeed, there are times when the word ‘socialist’ is simply meant to suggest being ‘caring’, ‘having a conscience’ and, of course, not being an Evil Tory Bastard. I guess socialists are like this (courtesy of James Delingpole):

“…devil-may-care; good in bed; raffishly tousled; cool; sexy. They: sympathise with the underdog; hate injustice; respect the working classes and people of all races and creeds; regardless of looks, physical ability or gender; nurture the environment; have great taste in music; oppose violence; loathe inequality; and kind to children and to small furry animals with lovely bright eyes and floppy ears and expressions on their sweet pink little mouths you could almost mistake for a human smile.”

But somehow this remains deeply unsatisfying and takes us no closer to what exactly Ed Miliband is prattling on about. He says he doesn’t agree with his Dad – the refugee from totalitarian socialism who supported its imposition on the nation that saved him – so what does he agree with? What is this ‘socialism’ stuff he professes to?

Now there are some out there who really do believe in socialism – in the imposition of that totalitarian state Ed’s Dad wanted. A kind of Cuba with fish and chips. Or maybe an East Germany with irony? I don’t get the attraction of all this but at least these people – let’s call them socialists – have a vision of society. A nasty, unpleasant, dictating, controlling and authoritarian vision but nonetheless a vision.

Ed Miliband seems mostly to believe in a mushy, cuddly, ‘aren’t we nice’ kind of socialism. One that uses regulation rather than ownership. Controls, limits and guidance rather than outright bans. And a kind of passive-aggressive, ‘you’re not really welcome here entrepreneurs (unless of course you bung loads of money to the Party in which case will sort it for you)’ approach to the creativity of the private sector. Ed Miliband’s socialism is the selfish, ‘right-on’ of the wealthy left-wing elite – filled with sanctimony and fuelled by a long attachment to the teat of public funding. This is the socialism of Polly Toynbee, Michael Foot, assorted Benns and a host of wealthy, posh publicly-funded panjandrums within “The Arts” and media.

However, Ed Miliband may be different. He may actually believe that those “unfairnesses” can be addressed, that the lives of the poor, the sick and the unlucky can be made better through the choices that Government makes. In which case he’ll support:

1. An education system that gives a more equal chance to children of similar intelligence?
2. A welfare system that encourages and rewards work, discourages idleness and comforts misfortune?
3. Health care that is built around people’s needs, is flexible and treats us like humans rather than numbers
4. A tax system that doesn’t take money from the poor to give to the relatively well-off
5. A system of public finances that gives priority to the needs of all and the concerns of the poor, sick and unlucky rather than the pastimes of the well off
6. A housing system which doesn’t feature people on £50,000 plus living in subsidised housing while others sleep in boxes under bridges
7. Scrapping an international trading system where our goods are freely traded while poor countries goods are barred by tariffs and import controls
8. International relations founded on conversation rather than the aggressive, post-colonial exporting of “democracy” to places without any effective, functioning government of any sort

If this is what Ed Miliband wants – and therefore ‘socialism’ – then I’m a socialist. And funnily enough so is the current government because that list is a list of coalition aims. Some of the things our Government wants to achieve.

Sadly, I fear Ed Miliband just wants high taxes, more bureaucracy, more regulation, more control, more guidance and greater centralisation. If that’s socialism it’s what we don’t want since it means more poverty, more illness, fewer jobs and business and a dull, stagnant, uninspiring land.


Friday Fungus: Mushrooms and brown bread

Just before we start I suppose I should point out to my cockney-aware readers that, while brown bread is rhyming slang for dead, it's presence in the title of this blog is mere happenstance. The plan is to talk about mushrooms on toast - or indeed mushrooms on plain old brown bread with the juices soaking through into the good bread and making for a wonderful snack. The snack of kings!

I'm often asked (or maybe just a couple of times) what you should cook mushrooms with or in. And as you know, I'm largely against the slimy excuse for cuisine that is the regular restaurant mushroom dish - all laden with cream and too much garlic. I suppose that for poor quality shop bought mushrooms that's perhaps acceptable but for the good ones and especially the wild ones it is sacrilege.

Simplicity is everything - just frying the mushrooms in butter with some fresh herbs, salt and pepper takes a great deal of beating (served on good brown bread hence the title). Especially when you've just spend a fun four hours hunting the little darlings down. And, if you want to be proper la-di-dah with it all, scrape in a little Parmesan or mature pecorino.

Or do the Christmas version - add some chestnuts. Fantastic!


Thursday, 25 November 2010

See you....

Busy day today - so no blogigng. Have asked Kiwi to look out for you - I think he's agreed!

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

I think this rather makes my point about the left and choice....


From the comments to this post...

Of course choice is bad. It implies the sorting of sheep and goats which the right love so much - only when there is no choice will all services be good. The only argument against this is greed and selfishness - the creed of the right

...see - totally barking!

Schools, choice and competition - why we have to change

While scrabbling around the – mostly unedifying – debate about education in England it came to me that the problem really comes down to a fundamental disagreement about the idea of choice. Indeed this relates to several debates – health, social care, local government, housing. Put simply (and, I admit, perhaps just a little unfairly) the left sees choice as a problem whereas the right see choice as a solution. And the more complicated the particular service the less value our left-wing friends see in providing choice. Here’s the doyenne of wealthy left-wing commenters on education:

The intention is clearly to reintroduce the hierarchies with a vengeance, setting school against school, parent against parent and child against child.

The curse of choice – give parents a real choice (including the chance to join with other parents and teachers to set up their own school) and, says Ms Millar, chaos will ensue.

Why can’t parents just send their children to the “local school” and be done with it, these people say (secure in the knowledge that their local school in whichever leafy suburb the reside is a top performing school – or they can afford the cash for top up lessons to make up for any shortcomings at the school).

That option simply isn’t there for poorer parents – their local school isn’t like that, it’s dreadful, filled with out-of-control children and with teachers who’ve become so brow-beaten that they see getting through the day without being assaulted as something of a victory. And any children who may just want to actually learn something – get on in life, give themselves a chance – struggle. And too often fail.

The problem is that the left think that choice is too tricky an idea – that poor people aren’t able to decide which school is the best for their children. Allocations should be just that – a process whereby the state tells parents where their children will go to school. All this is justified by saying that choice, competition and variety are ‘unfair’ and will “set parents against parent”. Funny how we don’t see that in parts of society where there is real choice!

For me, the saddest thing in all this is that choice really will better advantage poorer families. There will still be unfairness and inequality – but we’ve got that squared in our current system – but as Mark Lehain from Bedford Free School observed:

The team I'm heading consists of educationists from a variety of backgrounds, with a range of different philosophies and beliefs. What we have in common is a sense that the existing system is failing too many children, and that if it isn't working after 60 years, it is unlikely to start doing so now. A fresh approach really is needed.

Only 70% of students who live in the area where we will set up – Kempston – attend the local upper school, and of those who do, this summer only 31% managed to get five good GCSEs including English and maths.

Other schools in our town are doing better – although in Bedford itself, only 42% of 16-year-olds this summer achieved the same measure.

Look at those numbers – that’s the story in a place that’s far from the most deprived in England – and say again that a few adjustments to our current system will serve children well? There has to be dramatic and substantial change - more of the same simply won't do.


Tuesday, 23 November 2010

Thoughts on the planning system....

I was thinking today - in one of those idle moments - why it is that we are so conflicted about ownership. And, more importantly, why we persist in the almost feudal belief that ownership is a permission rather than a right.

Except of course that, in the case of real estate and related property rights, this is the case. We are, de facto, serfs and have been since 1947:

In 1947 the Town & Country Planning Act was published, providing the first comprehensive basis for the control of development and land uses in this country. Before 1947 the use of land and development was largely uncontrolled, although some limitations were exercised through Public Health and local Acts.

The 1947 Act introduced a comprehensive system for the control of development and since then (with some specific exceptions) no land owner has been entitled to carry out any development without first obtaining the necessary planning permission.

You can only make use of your real estate property with the permission of government. Only those uses that our masters permit are allowed. And the government can (and does) act precipitously, aggressively and arbitrarily to enforce its feudal authority over our land.

While other parts of the 1945-1950 Labour Government's attempts to enforce socialism through fiat are gradually being dismantled (the nationalisation of industry, elements of the "welfare state", the assumptions of free care and so on), nobody - not even the most swivel-eyed right winger - is questioning whether we should start to dismantle the "planning system".

The current coalition government is saying that its "open source planning" proposals represent a dramatic and radical shift in the planning system. Which at one level is true - the 'regional' agenda is removed and greater 'community engagement' is promised. But the truly radical change - a real presumption in favour of development - is nowhere to be seen. Planners will still cling to their authoritarian powers to direct the uses of our land and can still, at the stroke of a pen, turn someone from a pauper to a plutocrat. And they love it - and hate any diminution of their power:

The Institute said it was particularly concerned that the government’s proposals to abolish regional planning – contained in the proposed Decentralisation and Localism Bill – are based mainly on an objection to imposed regional housing targets rather than to the principle of strategic planning.

The RTPI added that it “strongly advocates” the need for strategic-level planning that co-ordinates development and infrastructure between different areas, provides a wide range of environmental policies, and ensures that the needs of the wider than local community are properly addressed.

You can't just let people decide for themselves what to do with land - it might not be 'strategic' (whatever that may mean)! The truth is that these powers, linked to what the Yanks call 'eminent domain' and we call 'compulsory purchase', provide government with the ability to confiscate land for almost any purpose.

Giving local places more controls is a real step forward - and the 'community right to build' (the 'thin end of the wedge' as I heard one planner call it) allows communities to make development choices themselves rather than allowing the planners to make their random, arbitrary 'strategic' choices. But we need to go further - to really trust local places to discuss, debate and negotiate development between landowners, builders and the people whose amenity is directly affected by that development. Without the expensive, rules-bound, legalistic planning system to prevent sensible, locally-supported developments proceeding.

I spend more time arguing for flexibility in 'green belt' controls - to permit farm conversions, to allow holiday lets, to facilitate modern farming practice and to let landowners make careful, supported decisions about sensitive landscape - than I do "defending" that green belt from rapacious developers.

Perhaps what we need is a real local 'tribunal' process - with our without us councillors - that arbitrates between the landowner's rights and the rights of those affected by development. All the volumes of planning guidance (or "statements" as they now are) do not help this process - they merely act as a barrier. This isn't an argument for scrapping planning but a case for trusting local people and the people they elect to make the right decisions - free from lawyers, planners and inspectors.


Sunday, 21 November 2010

Medieval lamb stew - and how cooking methods have changed

We get stuck with out assumptions and presumptions about cooking. And we take it as read that the techniques our mothers (or the nice bloke off the telly) told us are the only way. We brook no alternatives.

So it comes as a surprise to read this recipe:

Mounchelet: Take veel other motoun and smyte it to gobettes. Seeth it in gode broth; cast thereto erbes yhewe gode won, and a quantite of oynouns minced, powdour fort and safroun, and alye it with ayren and various: but let it not seeth after.

(Taken from Maggie Black, the Medieval Cookbook)

You’ve seen the difference straight away, I know. Although we’ve been told all those years to “seal the meat” for a stew, those medieval chaps simply dumped the meat into the boiling stock. Which, of course, is so much healthier and seals the meat just as well!

The bit about ‘alye it with ayren’ is also interesting – this is to thicken the stew. And to do that (again to my surprise) you beat eggs and lemon juice together and mix into the stew – ‘gradually’!

Why on earth to we think bureaucrats will ever understand Big Society?

A great deal of cynicism and vast acres of misinformation accompanies the idea of the ‘Big Society’. Here’s the Guardian:

Is it time to say goodbye to the "big society"? After just a few months, it is clear the idea is in serious trouble. This isn't because we haven't tried. At first, there was a big society boom in the civil service. An entire industry emerged as public and private sector providers competed to sell places on big society seminars, training courses and courses to train people to run courses. Big society position papers shuffled across Whitehall and all departments were asked to write narratives with details of policies that most exemplified the big society.

Despite all this work, we have hit a brick wall. In short, the idea won't work as not enough people will want to make it happen in the years ahead. Government is retreating into a laissez-faire state and telling people to do things for themselves, but won't be providing the staff or the money to help them make the transition. People will soon be earning less money, working more hours (to keep their jobs or earn more money) with fewer services and less support.

For me this narrative – of a vast state bureaucracy failing entirely to understand something – is precisely what I would expect. All those great brains, the well remunerated consultants, self-important pundits and training providers – they’re not part of the Big Society. They are the problem. Of course they don’t “get” the Big Society – it’s not in their personal or collective interests to do so - they are in charge of the castle.

What these bureaucrats do not understand is that the Big Society is not something that can be created by fiat. There is no link between the Big Society and the writing of policy papers, the conducting of conferences or the holding of meetings in well-padded offices on Whitehall. None whatsoever. In fact the Big Society is the very antithesis of these activities – which is why civil servants wish to kill it.

Big Society is about Government not being in control. It’s about bureaucrats not being able to guide and direct. It’s about a world without the besuited, clipboard-wielding jobsworth. It’s about groups of people getting on with doing something they want to do – not waiting cap in hand for the “funding streams” to pay over the money. It’s about volunteers – about doing something because you think you’d like to rather than because you’re paid by some bureaucratic system to do it.

OK, so some of the stuff on the Big Society is a bit up itself (at least rhetorically) but the real problem is that state control – directly through regulation or indirectly through control of funding – has bred out of us the idea that we can actually get something done without government. The agents that made for a Big Society in times past – the co-ops and mutuals, charities large and small, schools and churches – have been corrupted, bedazzled by the sight of all that government cash. Other people’s money to lavish on your pet projects – what could be better!

We face a choice. We can continue to live in a world when rules and regulations are so complicated that the resulting decisions are, to all intents and purposes, arbitrary. Or we can take control of our communities – of our lives, of or families – away from the Government. Away from the dictats of bureaucratic commissars. Away from the big business agents of those bureaucrats.

The Big Society is about making the right choice. It is about us not them. It is about taking a big step towards being free again.



Everyone's happy, smiling, a little bit excited. Most aren't yet drunk. And we arrive.

"Hi! Long time no see! How are you! What are you up to"

The heart sinks. Do I have to really answer that question - to say how I am and what I'm up to? Honestly?

"I'm good!"

The hug follows. A moment to escape eye contact. An escape from elaborating on "I'm good".

And on to the next person - same ritual, same questions, same little moment of pain. What you really want to say is;

"No, I'm pretty crap really, this year's been awful and I'm borderline depressive. And I don't want to talk about it thanks."

But I don't say that and life's deception continues. But the pain stays.


A special thank you to the Adam Smith Institute for exposing more NEF nonsense.


As you know, dear reader, the New Economics Foundation is one of my very favourite institutions - a source of endless 'hand-to-face' moments, squeals of delight at ignorance and general 'do these greenie lefies really believe that' occasions.

It seems I'm not alone and the venerable Adam Smith Institute gets a similar pleasure - here commenting on NEF's solution to the housing supply problem:

Well, if you work for the nef, you suggest that taxation on property development should be raised. Quite ignoring that taxing something produces less of it. You then insist that private sector organisations shouldn't be allowed to get planning permission. No, really, reducing supply is well known to reduce prices, isn't it? Finally, we'll bankrupt most of the current developers by taking away their land banks which already have planning permission.

Oh, and joy of joys, they also reinvent the collaterialised debt obligation (CDO)* but this time it's the government's housing benefit payments that provide the collateral.

Great stuff.

*CDOs were at the bottom of the the foetid pile of dingos kidneys that is the US banking system, since you ask

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Jeremiah and the Cuts...

One of the reasons we're likely to be giving Ireland a big bung in the near future is that our banks own about £100bn of that lovely Irish debt. And most of that lending was by those banks now under state control. It's just another example of how the smoke and mirrors of finance confuses us - which suits the bankers and their political clients (or vice versa - it's hard to see whether bankers or the public sector benefits most from this arrangement).

What worries me is that the approach we're taking - mostly pretending that by some mystic process we can go on affording to cough up a minimum of £70bn each year paying the interest on public debts while maintaining 5 million folk on welfare (and at the same time importing large numbers of cheaper, harder working people from elsewhere in the world to do the jobs that some of those 5 million could be doing).

My generation have, without doubt, been the greediest generation ever. Not just the bankers or other fat cats - all of us. We've gone on year after year voting ourselves ever more generous benefits, we've piled borrowed money into our pleasures not thinking of the consequences and we've created a world where every entitlement under the sun must come to us. And we vote accordingly to pile up those debts - to load a huge burden onto tomorrows taxpayer while making sure our position is protected.

And when some Jeremiah points out that we're headed for disaster they are rounded on. Condemned as uncaring, laughed at, dismissed. Yet those Jeremiahs are right. We cannot continue like this. We cannot continue pretending that all the arts funding, the subsidised higher education, the overmanned public sector and the extravagant welfare system is sustainable.

We may want all those things. We probably consider them good. But, at some point, we need to cut our cloth to fit the cash we've available. And that means getting rid of a lot we take for granted now.

...or maybe we'll go on taxing too much, borrowing too much and ignoring the facts. Until it really is too late. And then we'll be really sorry we didn't do it now.


Why you mustn’t let the Government regulate the Internet – some thoughts on net neutrality

I mean, what do I know? Surely Simon you should steer away from those geek subjects like ‘net neutrality’! But it’s important – very important – because…

…the advocates of ‘net neutrality’ are asking for the Internet to be regulated by Government.

And, you are quite right dear reader; this is not a good thing at all.

But first the argument. Here’s Ed Vaizey upsetting the net neutrality wonks by saying no:

Internet service providers such as BT should be allowed to abandon net neutrality and prioritise users' access to certain content providers, the communications minister Ed Vaizey said in a speech today.

The move away from net neutrality in the UK will prove controversial as it opens the door for ISPs to favour some websites in terms of the volume and speed of the delivery of their content to users, while others given lower priority could see their internet traffic suffer.

This is a bad thing say those wonks (and some vested interests like the search engine providers and the BBC):

In this case the baby they'll eat is the open internet. If ISPs can say to firms, "nice data you've got here. It'd be a shame if anything happened to it" they can ensure that the next YouTube, the next iPlayer never takes off.

Bear in mind that many ISPs aren't just carriers: they're also in the media business, so for example ISPs such as BT, Sky and Virgin have services that could be seen as competitors to, er, YouTube and iPlayer. That should be reason enough to worry about net neutrality.

The problem is that the solution offered by the supporters of ‘net neutrality’ is more Government. Because we think that corporations eat babies, we hand control over to the biggest baby eater of them all – our Government? Now that seems a really good idea! What do you think that Government will do with its regulatory powers? Allow us really free access to the Internet? Any Internet? Who are you trying to kid!

Of course statist apologists like to play games with words – here’s the estimable Left Foot Forward demonstrating how he doesn’t understand what makes a free market:

What does net neutrality actually mean? Net neutrality can be hard to define because of technical issues involved. But according to one of the world’s experts on it, Professor Tim Wu of Columbia Law School in New York, it is a principle that advocates no restrictions by internet service providers, infrastructure providers or the government on content, sites or different ways of using the ’net. It is an online ‘free market’ in its purest sense.

Not really since net neutrality requires enforcement, regulation and controls that are designed externally to the market. But that’s not the big deal here. The big problem is that there are no constitutional protections in the UK – government, that rapacious, lying hobgoblin, can do as it pleases. And it will – even the waving of a tiny stick by Ed Vaizey shows a willingness to order and direct the operation of the market.

In a more considered and less frothing piece on Wired three concerns are raised about ‘net neutrality’ arguments:

First is that bandwidth is not, in fact, unlimited, especially in the wireless world. One reason ISPs are averse to neutrality regulation, they say, is that they need the flexibility to ban or mitigate high-bandwidth uses of their network, like BitTorrent and Hulu.com, which would otherwise run amok. Take away their ability to prioritize traffic, the ISPs say, and overall service will suffer.

Second, enforcement of neutrality regulations is going to be difficult. Comcast may not be able to block Skype traffic altogether, but what’s to prevent the company from slowing it down relative to other traffic it carries? Such preferential “packet shaping” is easy to turn off and on, as network demands ebb and flow. By contrast, proving such infractions of neutrality will be complex, slow and difficult.

Third, the new regulations create an additional layer of government bureaucracy where the free market has already proven its effectiveness. The reason you’re not using AOL to read this right now isn’t because the government mandated AOL’s closed network out of existence: It’s because free and open networks triumphed, and that’s because they were good business.

Now the FCC is proposing taking a free market that works, and adding another layer of innovation-stifling regulations on top of that? This may please the net neutrality advocates…but it doesn’t add up.

I’m somewhat equivocal about this but my instinct is that we should be more concerned with core market constraints - access, oligopolistic power, cartelization – than with introducing new regulations. Especially when Government has already taken to itself the power to act on such anti-competitive actions.

Finally I do not really subscribe to the ‘corporations eat babies’ principle that drives much of the ‘net neutrality’ support. In the main corporations operating in a free market have cause to provide for their customers what those customers want – and not just fifty percent plus one as is the case with government. Government’s duty is not to punish Virgin and News Corp for being successful businesses with strong brands but to ensure that those businesses do not prevent market entry or stifle competition. And we need no new laws to do that.


Friday, 19 November 2010

So will social media make us more tolerant (at least in public)?

Today I spent a thoroughly enjoyable day in Scarborough speaking with Councillors about social media. Alongside all the usual subjects – how to do it, what the risks are, how councils get in the way of local councillors making best use of social media and how it’s all so scary – was a subject that I find quite fascinating. This is the distinction between public and private – the whole question of our media profile and the degree to which we are tolerant of perceived societal sins.

There are plenty of examples of these perceived sins – threatening in jest to blow up airports or stone journalists, dressing up in WWII German uniforms for parties* (and, of course, the dreadful ‘Nazi salute’) and our back catalogue of misbehaviour.

We’ve seen how the misdeeds of Cameron and Osborne are used as a stick to beat them with (especially as a great deal of such bad behaviour involves dressing up in penguin suits and wearing embroidered waistcoats – a sin of terrible poshness). But the question for future generations of politicians – if you like, the ‘Facebook’ generation is just how we will deal with the silly antics, the photographs of semi-naked dances in fountains and the louche photographs of drunkenness and seeming debauchery. All great fun for 19 year olds enjoying university or 25 year olds on the office Christmas night out but what about those who go on to be cabinet ministers, bishops or diplomats?

Will we as a society still drag out photos from 20 years ago – or even newspaper reports from ten years past – as the basis for active, current political campaigns? Will we still say that such and such a politician should be sacked or has bad judgment because of some drunken photos that appeared on Facebook twenty years previously? Or will the fact that Facebook – and other social media – provide such a public record of everyone that the response will be “so what”?

I suspect we won’t grow up. We’ll still seek political advantage from other past pranks and misdeeds. The apology will be ignored and the opportunity to look at the whole person ignored in the search for a clever comment, a good spread in the papers or a cutting blog post.

…but I can hope!

*Always wondered why it was OK to dress up as Stalin, Moa or even Pol Pot but not Hitler?

Friday Fungus: a useful mushroom?

OK so the birch polypore (Piptoporus betulinus) is a parasite and kills birch trees which I suppose isn't all that friendly. But there's plenty of birches to go round and mostly it colonises older trees with bad hearts.

It is however a useful fungus - here, for example, is how to make a plaster from it. You can also dry the mushrooms and use them as firelighters and even to sharpen knives.

However, it isn't good eating (by which I mean you can eat it but it doesn't taste nice and is as tough as old boots).


Thursday, 18 November 2010

The stuffed hedgehog principle...

There you are having a nice pub meal - steak, chips, onion rings plus maybe something green to show willing. And, looking across the bar, you spy something odd. Not quite sure what it is - might be a stuffed hedgehog. You put it down to experience - I mean what kind of establishment would litter its fireplaces with stuffed hedgehogs?

Yet you return - drawn, fascinated, absorbed even - to view the mystical stuffed hedgehog. OK so it's not all that great a stuffing (on closer examination) and it's trying to crawl up a badger's backside. But, wonder of wonders, it is definitely a real stuffed hedgehog.

Such is the essence of modern life. We are faced with things we don't expect to see - Wayne Rooney studying Latin, the Beckhams pigging out on steak and chips at a Harvester and Jeff Stelling singing plain chant - but never a stuffed hedgehog.

I guess my life is complete now.


Wednesday, 17 November 2010

European Union has served its purpose. Time to scrap it.


What follows isn’t one of those ‘Little Englander’ rants about the iniquities of Johnny Foreigner and how Britain’s membership of the European Union is a bad thing – probably because there’s too many foreigners involved, don’t you know! Instead – as someone who once was a swivel-eyed Euro-fanatic – it is a simple and straightforward argument for the whole show to be shut down.

The European Union has done its job. Now it should pack its bags, shut up shop and shuffle onto the dusty shelves of history.

Whenever the leaders of Europe speak of the project they inevitably – as in some sub-clause to Godwin’s Law – refer to the need to prevent European nations tearing themselves asunder in an orgy of war and terror. This is why – as we heard most recently from Helmut Von Rumpuy – the Euro-enthusiast desires to link the sceptical view of the project to nationalism. By saying that scrapping the EU will lead to a renewed ‘nationalism’ (by which of course the speaker means brown or black shirts and jackboots), a further seed of doubt is sown into the mind of the undecided.

However, having presided over the reconstruction of Europe’s industry (behind tariff walls that, once removed, meant the terminal decline of those same industries), the rebuilding of good relations between the peoples of the continent and the collapse of centralist socialism as a national model, the EU now has no purpose. Indeed, it has become an anachronism, an historical nonsense. And an expensive one to boot!

European nations – for all our football fan bluster about the French or the Germans – are not going to war with each other. We’ve got pretty used to rubbing along with our neighbours and share an enormous amount with them. Continuing with supranational institutions achieves nothing – other than to create tensions where there need not be tensions.

So it is with Ireland. A little place. Smaller in population that London or Paris and stuck out on the fringes of Europe. A nation with a difficult relationship with its immediate neighbour and whose talent has, in the past, mostly left on boats and planes to create a noisy diaspora. This was the “Celtic Tiger” – explosive growth fuelled by an asset boom the like of which the place had never seen! And, as these things do, the economic train hit the wall.

But there’s a problem. Ireland – just as with Greece and soon, Portugal – is no longer master of its own destiny. The option of reducing the value of the currency has gone as has the ability to use a central bank to support actions in the market. Ireland can either default – with all the problems that entails – or cut spending.

The EU is in the way. Local economies in Europe are less able to respond to changes in the economic climate since the Governance of Europe will always be about German business and French government. For a while this mattered since the aim was to stop another war between these two countries. Today that's more likely with the EU than without. And, in the meantime, the economies of small countries are threatened by the controlling, economic dirigisme of the European system.
It is time for Europe to be set free again to grow, to create and to succeed. And for the Bonapartist myth of a single Europe to be returned again to the back shelves of history.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Happy Days!

Until a couple of days ago I was happy.

Happy in the knowledge that my Government intended to base its policy prescriptions on an objective assessment of the economy, the environment and social circumstances. Assessments that – while open to challenge – have the merit of being about tangible things like money, jobs, pollution and illness.

But now it seems – in a fit of nonsense – my Government has decided that all these carefully set, often sophisticated measures are not the thing. Instead we’re going to base policy decisions on measuring happiness. And we’re going to base that measurement on a clever appraisal of behavioural indicators, psychometric models and statisical analysis?

Er…no. We’re just going to ask people how happy they are. Four times a year.

That’s it.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m largely in favour of happiness – or at least its pusuit. But I wonder about the objectivity of happiness measures for a load of different reasons – some philosophical, some moral and some operational.

I guess we should start with the philosophical and moral questions – what is happiness. OK so I know some of those clever psychologists think that happiness is a physiological state and therefore nothing to do with philosophy, let alone metaphysics.

Scientists have observed common physical side effects of happiness. From brain waves, to hormone levels, to heart rate and blood pressure, happiness carries markers in the body.

But note that these are “physical side effects” – all the clever psychologists can tell you is that when you’re happy we can detect these side effects. That doesn’t begin to tell us what we mean by happiness.

The concept of happiness – and its importance can be traced back to Plato:

The man who makes everything that leads to happiness depends upon himself and not upon other men has adopted the very best plan for living happily. This is the man of moderstion, of manly character and of wisdom

Plato saw well-being as a central element in society and more significantly that happiness is a consequence of justice and that it was not the result of hedonistic indulgence. Thus:

The descriptions of the pleasure seeking nature of democratic individuals and the just man, who pursues a balanced and harmonious lifestyle, not surrendering himself to ‘savage and unreasoning pleasure’ show that Plato’s view was that pursuit of happiness and pleasure for its own sake leads only to injustice and enslavement.

It seems to me that this rejection of pleasure as a source of well-being is reflected in the proposals we now see to measure happiness. And therefore, that this happiness cannot be addressed through panem et circenses but must be addressed through the superior class putting in place laws, systems and measures that promote well-being. This might be expressed in the manner of Bentham and Mill:

Yet it may still in the end be the case that his (Bentham’s) most persistent and consistent concerns lay neither in ethics nor in politics but in government. He believed that efficiency, order, rationality, system, when developed and sustained in the business of government, administration and judicature, would produce better societies for human beings to live in.

Thus the pursuit of happiness was, for these utilitarians, a matter for government rather than for the individual. The purpose of government is “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” whether they like it or not. This is the type of government that sees the banning of minority interests to serve a perceived wider interest as just.

The idea of government endorsed happiness is an elitist and deeply reactionary concept that derives from an authoritarian conception of government’s purpose.

Which rather brings us – my apologies for this being at something of a canter – to the modern day idea of ‘well-being’ or happiness. And we find that modern proponents of ‘happiness economics’ remain at heart utilitarian. Here’s Richard Layard:

The need is pretty obvious, but one fact makes it absolutely essential. People in the West have got no happier in the last 50 years. They have become much richer, they work much less, they have longer holidays, they travel more, they live longer, and they are healthier. But they are no happier.

Note that we're not told we are less happy - merely that progress is pointless as it does not make us more happy. Because of this Prof. Layard and others argue that the entire basis of our policy-making must be changed. Away from the enlightenment settlement – the idea of human progress through adventure – to an earlier idea of stabilily. An idea more akin to the work of Hobbes (and indeed back to Plato’s ‘guardians’) where we see that submission to authority is a prerequisite of ‘contentment’. We know our place in the order of things.

So much for the philosophical and moral questions although I find the appeal to authority implicit in Layard’s work somewhat disheartening – even, dare I say it, depressing – we should not be surprised that successive governments under the leadership of Britain’s ‘guardian’ class are attracted by the idea of directing the happiness of hoi poloi. Suffice it to say that the concept derives from authoritarian approaches to rule rather than to the idea of liberty and human progress. A concept I find to be without moral justice.

Indeed, the happiness beloved of the utilitarians, Hobbesians and modern day Platonists isn't the excitement of achivement - the joy of 'Eureka' - but the contentment of a gentle boat ride down the river. The aim is too eliminate stress and promote a form of benign comfort - a slippers and comfy chair kind of world. There is no room for 'grit in the shoe', for the little irritations that drive innovation. We must accept our place, be content with our lot.

These gurus of happiness do not want anger, challenge, debate and annoyance as these things are stressful - they undermine 'well-being'. We are to be gentled - made docile by our masters' policies. Resistance will be punished to serve the 'happiness' of fifty plus one. And it sounds so pleasant, so lulling:

"Wellbeing can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society's sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times."

I think, Mr Cameron, you should have stopped after the first four words in that statement!

Happiness doesn't seem to relate directly to anything that public policy actions address. We could argue just as much that the relentless increase in taxation and state control is driving unhappiness as we can that it is misdirected economic policy. In truth:

"...happiness research cannot be used to justify government intervention in the way its proponents suggest. Those who would wish governments to take into account measures of wellbeing when setting policy often point to the fact that increases in income have not lead to increases in measured happiness, and thus governments should concentrate on redistribution and improving the quality of life, rather than on allowing people to benefit from economic growth. In fact, measured happiness does not appear to be related to public spending, violent crime, property crime, sexual equality, disability, life expectancy or unemployment either. The stark fact is that the difficulties in measuring society's happiness are insurmountable, and policymakers should not claim that they can control and increase happiness through public policy decisions."

My concern, more than anything else, is that 'gross national happiness' will prove to be a justification for more rules, more controls and more intervention in our lives. All for the greater good, you understand. Another excuse for those ever more forceful nudges.

And at the end of it?

We won't be any happier.


Monday, 15 November 2010

Free beer...(a thought on happiness)

So we are to be measured for happiness! Bring out the glasses. Crack open the bottles. Line up the cigars.

...the government will be giving us free beer!

(well it would make me happy)


Sunday, 14 November 2010

Thoughts following Remembrance in Wilsden

Each year Wilsden Main Street is closed for an hour so we can hold a remembrance service at the War Memorial. And at that service, the Chairman of the Village Society reads out the names of those listed on the memorial.

In one respect this is just a list of 50 or so names and it’s easy to find the recitation dull. Yet these names are of men who died in those two great 20th Century Wars – wars of survival for our freedom, culture and independence. Remembering their sacrifice is the least we can do.

This year, however, I noticed something else. The familiarity of those names – Firth, Ackroyd, Miles, Robertshaw, Lund, Binns – these are local names. I meet every day with people from those very families and it reminds me of the scale of the sacrifice – the effect of the loss on small communities like Wilsden. It wasn’t just that men died but that the scale of death affected everyone, every family and every street.

It seems to me significant that children in Wilsden can be taken to the memorial and shown the name of someone who died for their freedom. Not just a random name but a real name – maybe someone from their family but certainly a name they will know, a name their neighbour or their school friend shares. A real reminder of the price of freedom.


Saturday, 13 November 2010

The law is an ass. And lawyers serve that donkey.


My professions – such as they are – are accessible. That is you do not require a particular piece of paper in order to be a politician, a marketer, a fundraiser or a regenerator. There are folk with a range of qualifications, experience and approach doing all these professions – and doing them well.

The problem with all this is that people try to make their professions exclusive – there’s a Chartered Institute of Marketing, there’s an Institute of Fundraising and I’m pretty sure there’s an Institute of Economic Development. All these institutes wish to secure – in the manner of the medieval trades guilds – control over who does these jobs. Not because it is only possible for people holding the institutes’ paper to do these jobs – that is demonstrably not the case – but because the use of these barriers restrains supply and thereby artificially raises the price (we get paid more money).

These tyros look wistfully at the old professions – and especially at the law. The legal professions have control of a system that ossifies the inefficiency of the ancient courts, that talks in a language different from that or ordinary people, takes on a position of such elite magnificence that us mere civilians must nod in wonder at its genius.

But there’s a problem. The law is an ass. And lawyers serve that donkey not the public.

The question is whether the law’s stupidity is a function of those who make the laws – the politicians – or a result of the profession’s distance from normal life? And while we rightly focus on the daftness of some laws, we do not ask about how the law’s concepts corrupt real meaning and act to drive perverse and sub-optimal outcomes.

Let me explain with reference to two ‘terms’ often heard in reference to court decisions – “reasonable” and “ordinary”.

We think we understand what these words mean. To most of us, “reasonable” means governed by common sense – we do not need firm or strong boundaries to that and can be flexible or fuzzy about it. But we know reasonable when we see it! But hang on – lawyers don’t mean common sense they mean something else entirely:

The word “reasonable” in law means fair, proper or moderate having regard for the circumstances. It is most frequently used as a word fixing a standard of assessment. Use of the word imports an objective test to the noun with which it is used.

So this isn’t the exercise of judgment but the application of a test. And, in applying that test, it is possible to make the reasonable unreasonable (and vice versa). The law becomes that donkey again.

And so to “ordinary” – used in the recent ‘twitter joke’ appeal. As the judge put it:

As for the tweet at the centre of the case, she called it "menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed."

It is very clear that the lawyer has a very different – perhaps more precise – definition of “ordinary”. The ‘ordinary person’ is a lawyer’s convenience – untested and unevidenced – allowing them to lay claim to understanding. The judge’s statement has to be untrue since she could not possibly know – so a convenient fiction is constructed to avoid the need to test the truth of that ‘ordinary person’s’ response.

None of this is meant to be an interpretation of that case since, as I am not a lawyer, I cannot understand the decision. What I am observing is the manner in which the law and lawyers create a language that excludes that ‘reasonable man’ and ‘ordinary person’. Such people are merely chimera – constructs that allow the judge to impose his or her view on the world through a claimed ‘reasonableness’ or ‘ordinariness’. They are not you and me - real 'ordinary men and women'.

In its essence, the process of trial is simple. The situation is described, arguments are made on both sides and somebody (or bodies) arrives at a judgment on the basis of what is heard. To conduct such a process does not require great study except that lawyers – aided and abetted by politicians – have created a great body, a different language and an excluding process. Which allows said lawyers to maintain and protect their privileges.

The legal professions are the last of the medieval guilds still wielding power and control. They are self-regulated and exclusive. Access to the law is expensive – unavailable to all but the very rich, the very poor and, of course, the Government.

Any reform of the law has to start with reforming the professions and opening up the judiciary. So long as the professions act as guilds – controlling entry, managing the work and administering internal justice – we will continue to get these perverse outcomes of legal processes.

…but the law will still be an ass. And lawyers will still serve that donkey.


"Punishing the poor..." - exposing another left-wing lie about Conservatives

One of the rules of left-wing commentary has been to develop an uncontested mythology about the right - and more importantly about people who are not left wing. I say uncontested since when the mythology is contested any discussion descends very rapidly into unsubstantiated - even nasty - ad hominum attacks on the person contesting. Most commonly through the fallacy of 'guilt through association'.

Typical of these myths are the following:

"Tories don't care"
...and "Tories want to punish the poor"*

Here's a pretty typical example from Bob Holman (who is, I think, an official progressive saint) in an article about Iain Duncan Smith filled with crocodile tears:

The IDS I knew was a politician who almost wept at the plight of the poor. My guess is that, in order to reach his costly goal of a universal credit scheme, he has had to mollify the chancellor, George Osborne – and that can only be done by being like those Tories who take pleasure in punishing the poor.

The last sentence is a statement of the myth. I was brought up in the Conservative Party - my grandfathers were both Councillors, my father was a Councillor and mother, aunts and grandmas were all actively involved. I undoubtedly know more about "Tories" and what they take pleasure in than all the Guardian columnists and left-wing "community workers" put together.

And I can say categorically that from among the hundreds of Conservatives I have known well - from every background and at every level - I cannot recall a single one who took "pleasure in punishing the poor". Not one.

Rather the opposite - my experience is of good people who really care. Care enough to volunteer their time, expertise and cash to help others. People who would go out of their way to assist if they could. People who had a genuine sense that helping others is a duty placed on us all. Without those "uncaring Tories", meals-on-wheels wouldn't have been delivered, charity shops manned, soup kitchens run, community groups' books audited, children taken on trips...any one of a thousand acts of charity would have gone undone.

What the left mean when they say Tories want to "punish the poor" is that we don't 'get' that taking money in taxes and redistributing it in welfare is remotely "caring". It isn't care - it's the nationalisation of that duty we all have to our neighbours. The left have abrogated any responsibility to care to professional carers - social workers, community workers, youth workers and such like. And the result is the mess we're in, the dysfunction, the division and the failure of services.

All my life I've been surrounded by caring people – nearly all of them Tories - prepared to put their own time and effort into improving the chances of the poor. I have never heard any Tory suggest - even in jest - that we should 'punish' anyone for their circumstances, ill-luck or disadvantage.

Yet the myth persists. It is a lie and the people who say it should be ashamed of themselves.

*Note you can substitute 'poor' in this statement with any other group of your choice.

Thoughts on the price of fish (and the G20)....

I thought, dear reader, that while we're all distacted by the lunacy that is the British legal system, I'd talk about the price of fish. Or rather about the G20 summit over in Seoul this last week. I think it's quite important and am delighted at the event's inconclusive nature.
You know how it is with international boondoggles. Lots – in the case of the G20, thousands – of well-dressed, well-paid public servants toddle off to some far-flung corner of the world. And there they argue, pontificate, discuss and ultimately lecture us about how the private sector – the bit that actually creates the wealth – should behave.

This time round, the G20 has underlined the truth – with a big, thick red crayon. And that truth is that all the mucking about we’ve had since J. M. Keynes decided he – personally and on his own – could design a better world economy has covered over that truth. Lots of lovely communiqués, statements, treaties and concords have been agreed, issued, signed and published – all of them ignoring that truth. We get stuff like this:

…enhance the Mutual Assessment Process (MAP) to promote external sustainability.

We will strengthen multilateral cooperation to promote external sustainability and pursue the full range of policies conducive to reducing excessive imbalances and maintaining current account imbalances at sustainable levels. Persistently large imbalances, assessed against indicative guidelines to be agreed by our Finance Ministers and Central Bank Governors, warrant an assessment of their nature and the root causes of impediments to adjustment as part of the MAP, recognizing the need to take into account national or regional circumstances, including large commodity producers. These indicative guidelines composed of a range of indicators would serve as a mechanism to facilitate timely identification of large imbalances that require preventive and corrective actions to be taken.

Sounds good eh? Well it’s just an admission of failure really.
An admission that we can’t design a better world economic system regardless of the size of our brains or the sophistication of our computer models. And that, dear reader, is the truth that is underlined by this current G20 communiqué – although it doesn’t actually read that way, of course, because our leaders don't want to admit they can’t fix it or, indeed, to point out that no government intervention of any kind can fix it.

Fortunately for all of us, the world’s arch-protectionists (a treasured position held for many years by the French but now passed quietly to Barak Obama and the US Treasury) have not got their prize of managed trade. Indeed – and I can hear the squeals of protectionist pain – we actually got a reference to trade liberalisation! Something that Governments can do that really will help the world economy – you know, that free trade stuff that makes us rich!

...our strong commitment to direct our negotiators to engage in across-the-board negotiations to promptly bring the Doha Development Round to a successful, ambitious, comprehensive, and balanced conclusion consistent with the mandate of the Doha Development Round and built on the progress already achieved.

Despite this, it remains that case that the USA – using Gordon Brown’s ‘world-saving’ approach – is deliberately tanking its currency and intentionally feeding inflation so as to avoid facing up to its debts. And to support this we can expect the US Government to start “getting tough on trade”. Like this:

President Barak Obama attacked China’s policy of undervaluing its currency minutes after he and other Group of 20 leaders ended a summit that failed to agree on a remedy for trade and investment distortions.

“It is undervalued,” Obama said of the Yuan, speaking to reporters in Seoul after the meeting concluded. “And China spends enormous amounts of money intervening in the market to keep it undervalued.”

And of course the Chinese are supposed to sit about doing nothing while the US pours $600bn of freshly printed cash into the system so as to force the dollar’s value down? China may indeed be manipulating its currency – using its cash reserves to keep the Yuan’s value down – but the US cannot surely criticise this as it is following exactly the same policy.

The truth – that painfully inconvenient truth – is that none of this matters. Our economy is determined by the sum of value-adding interactions between individuals and groups of individuals. By something called trade. And for trade to work best we need the following conditions:

1. Money available to individuals to spend on the things they want – which means we must cut taxes (across the board)
2. Free movement of goods and services around the world – which means scrapping the CAP and other systems designed for subsidy and protection
3. Currencies that compete and find equilibrium in a free international system – which means taking the printing presses off the Government
4. Fewer – ideally no – barriers to entry – which means less regulation, fewer controls and a much smaller state

If we set these conditions we will thrive. And, in thriving we will provide those things we want as a society – schools, hospitals, security and protection for the sick, the disabled, the old and the unlucky. Things we’re struggling to provide now under the misplaced belief that Governments can design a better world economy.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Friday Fungus: The stuff we didn't eat!

No don't ask me - like a fool I didn't make any notes about the dozens of species that were either inedible, unpleasant, rock hard or outright poisonous! Some of them are in this basket - identify away!

We did learn that you can use Birch Polypores to light fires or make a plaster (I reckon they'd make a passing fair wall myself) and that, as ever, it's not as simple as it sounds when you ask: "is that mushrooms poisonous."

Also encountered were the remnants of mushrooms - oysters and chicken-of-the-woods that we might have been able to eat earlier in the season but now were old and rather chewed about by passing beasts and nibbled by maggots.

And we found some Amanita muscaria (you know the red and white magic mushrooms) - which pleased me most really and gave our guide the chance to tell the tale about the Sami. Mind you I like my version better!


Why can't folk just accept an apology?


Today I'm off to sunny Scunthorpe to speak with councillors about social media - twitter, blogs, facebook and so forth. And with all furore around the #twiterjoketrial and Cllr Gareth Compton's rather ill-advised attack on a well-known left-wing journalist, there will be plenty to speak about.

However, it seems to me that we have lost our sense of perspective in all this. I'm not passing judgment on either case except to say that, as ever, the law is an ass. But I do think that the protagonists in each case, as well as others involved, would not have taken this approach were we a better cultured and more civil society.

However much I respect and admire folk like David Allen Green and Robert Dougans for their efforts to minimise the law's ass-like nature, it seems to me that a society which turns instantly to law in order to resolve the insults inevitable in discourse is a truly decadent society. The lofty ideals of free speech, chivalry, decency and tolerance that we ought to treasure are cast aside as the insane literal-ness of the legal process crashes through the doors of our culture.

I listen to the fake offence being taken by people involved in these sort of cases. I scream silently as another person hides behind race, creed or gender to make indefensible accusations of their protagonists. And I seeth with anger when I see people who dish out ad hominum attacks every day respond to the mildest of criticism with an appeal to the law.

In a truly civilised society we would not need to conduct expensive court cases and appeals over jokes on twitter. The offender would put his or her hand up and apologise. The authorities would stand there and say:"don't be such an idiot again" - and their advice would be heeded.

In a truly civilised society the first response to causing offence should be an apology. Followed by that apology being accepted by the offended party and a shaking of hands. A lesson learned.

Instead people lose their jobs, their careers are ruined and their health is destroyed.

All because some folk are too grand to accept and apology or too rules-bound to do anything but prosecute. Or motivated by the opportunity to destroy someone's life so as to gain a temporary political advantage.

Next time...

...just accept the apology!


Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Ah memories....

"Tory scum" echoes the (ever so slightly posh) voice behind the presenter.

"Tory scum"

Tears sprang to my eyes at the memory of that cry - so often directed towards me back in the days! I could picture the cry of the trot, newspapers in hand...

"Fight the cuts, fight the Tories. SO-cialist Worker"

There would be the sleek John Rees - resplendent in his expensive bomber jacket and faux-palestinian scarf - crying the cry of the activist. A cry made louder as we tore up his foul rag before his eyes.

Ah, memories of student protest. Of the grand fights against "cuts". Of the struggle, the organising, the mobilising. The memory of the Communist student official who ran a campaign calling for us to vote for him to get:

"More n-n-n-nutty campaigning"

So thank you students for reminding me of those days. I didn't agree with you back then when I was a student and I don't agree with you now.

...but the memories are good!