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Tuesday, 26 October 2010

A note to warmongers, American and (as a consequence) British

Dear American Reader

There are several reasons why it is a bad idea for your country to attack other countries:

1. Your country will lose. Didn't you get the message after Vietnam?

2. Baddies don't get killed in the wars you conduct. Your missiles, fired from a safe distance, usually kill women and children - at home, in school, in hospital. It happens over and over again and, by the end, there is a very big civilian casualty toll and a very small number of Baddies killed. Ever stop to ask yourself why you are so unpopular?

3. Volunteer troops, often taken from deprived backgrounds, will sometimes behave well under stress and become heroes. But it seems, more often, they behave badly - loosing off bullets because they panic, beating up and torturing people (any people) who fall into their hands, generally acting unpleasant. Sometimes they are under the influence of illegal drugs which I understand are very popular back home but easier to get in Iraq and Afghanistan.

That sounds enough reasons to stop and think very carefully before you subject people in far away countries to shock and awe. Especially when you consider that the Brits will follow mindlessly behind wherever your leader leads.

Which? and your savings accounts.

Back on 10th July, I wrote about Hoarders and Wasters.

Now Which? has confirmed one of my suspicions. There are no less than 1200 different "Savings" accounts available from British banks and building societies. If "savers" switched their money from some of the low interest accounts to some of the higher interest ones, they would gain an estimated £12 billion a year. Instead, they are getting a rate of return on their "savings" which is below the rate of inflation. Good news for banks.

But Which? makes a mistake. It assumes that all this money is being "saved". That's not true. It's simply not being spent and that's a different activity. Some people are too mean, too lazy, too happy or too sick to spend. They may also be too mean, too lazy, too happy or too sick to save properly.

Take my free advice. Don't save. Then you don't have to read Which? reports on best value for money Savings accounts.

Thursday, 21 October 2010

Smelly Feet? I blame Marks and Spencer

I am of that generation which went to Marks and Spencer for one hundred percent cotton, one hundred percent wool. Socks, shirts, underpants, jumpers. You knew it made sense. Nylon made you sweat and itch and smell.

Now you have to look hard to find one hundred percent in M&S. It's all "Cotton Rich" and "Wool Rich" - that is to say, it's polyamides in greater or lesser proportions, whether it's made in China, Turkey or the UAE (three sources I noticed today - China provides the "Italian inspired" ranges).

Today I had to search hard for cotton and wool socks. What confronted me was massed ranks of "Fresh Feet" socks - socks which have been "sanitized" with some "silver technology" (that probably should have an ® )and promise freshness as long as the sock lasts.

So if you have smelly feet, M&S is the place to shop.

But, hang on, what is the direction of causation? Do ninety percent of men have smelly feet, accounting for the fact that ninety percent of M&S socks are targeted at this group? Surely not. I thought that smelly feet was a minority interest, easily catered for by surgical wear shops which sell corsets and trusses.

So maybe it's the other way round: stuff your socks with polyamides and, boy, do they make your feet smell - unless, of course, corrected for with sanitizing technology.

Take my advice. Avoid socks for smelly feet. Insist on cotton or wool. Better safe than smelly.

Added 3 October 2016:

In a local M&S, looking for things to buy for young grandchildren, I noticed a pack of socks. I read the label - they had been treated with Freshfeet (That's a Trademark) Technology. Frighten them young, eh?

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Eric Pickles, Scientology and Donkeys

Eric Pickles, our Communities Secretary, has challenged the very handsome tax breaks which some local authorities - including the City of London Corporation - give to Scientology. Up to 80% off business rates on their handsome properties.

Nice breaks if you can get them.

The world is full of questionable tax breaks. Donkeys do very well out of them, which is why there are lots of donkey sanctuaries, and lots of donkey sanctuarians going round ensuring that the legacies continue to roll in. They fund a lifestyle, not only for donkeys but for the humans who control them.

Just as there are too many buses on the road because they are subsidised through free bus passes for favoured groups (my age group, notably) so there are too many animal welfare charities because they are subsidised through tax breaks. Animal welfare charities are nice little earners.

As such, they should be treated like regular businesses. This would reduce their number and, hopefully, reduce the number of cute and cuddly animals used to front them.

But I would go farther. The Tories think inheritance taxes are unfair because they stop people leaving what they want to leave to their nearest and dearest. Well, maybe inheritance taxes on legacies to humans could be eased if legacies to cats' and dogs' homes were taxed more heavily. Let's say at 95%.

Then there are organised religions, the word "organised" having the sense that it does in "organised crime". Religions get out of VAT and business rates and criminal responsibility and goodness knows what else. How else would they afford all the baubles?

Time to tax them too.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

France: an Infantile Disorder?

They are striking again in France. They have been doing it ever since the August holidays ended. They always do. This time they say it is in opposition to legislation raising the retirement age from 60 to 62. France has the same problem as other European countries: funding the cost of state benefits for people who insist on living a lot, lot longer and against whom, so far, no virus (bird flu, swine flu, HIV) has proved remotely effective.

To an outsider, the strikes seem infantile. These are people who are not listening, not thinking and who are stuck in a groove of self-destructive action.

But there must be more to it than that. Every time I visit France, I am struck by how highly regulated life is by a highly centralised state apparatus. Personal freedom is quite limited. Commercial freedom even more so. People seem agitated and quick to anger. There is something wrong with the way of life.

All the restaurants open and shut at the same times and so do all the shops and banks. Every business displays reams of official paper granting it permission to do whatever it does but not anything else. People are fearful.

Everything shuts in August, including the hospitals - and so when, a few years ago, there was an extreme August heatwave, it was able to do a good job killing off elderly citizens in the cities simply because there were no doctors available to treat them.

Life in France is suffocating. No liberty, not much equality and certainly no fraternity. Strikes in France are not a left-wing disorder. They are symptoms of deep seated frustration with a centralised, authoritarian state and way of life. Unfortunastely, those going on strike think that the solution is more state power.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

My Benefits Right or Wrong

Over the past thirty or forty years, British governments have encouraged voters to think that they are in business to hand out benefits.

Ther have been a number of motivations.

When traditional industries in the North of England and so on declined and died, it was an easy option for govenment to hand out benefits, with no questions asked, to those who had become unemployed and to their dependents. It has continued ever since. Occupation? Benefits Claimant.

Then, to buy off disquiet about what was going on, governments - especially New Labour - had the bright idea of making everyone a Benefits Claimant. Thus arrived Universal Benefits. Child Benefit is the one now being talked about.

Universal benefits seem to make taxation painless - you pay your taxes and they give you it back, less the middleman's costs. It does not occur to people clutching their free bus passes that it might be more cost-effective to lower taxes and abolish the benefits.

So governments have created a nation of benefits' scroungers, the most vociferous of them affluent and middle class. Mr Cameron can say Your Country Needs You, but the claimants are quick with their reply, My Benefits Right or Wrong


Added 24 July 2018: This Blog post is expanded into a chapter of my paperback The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016) freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Life Isn't Fair. Get over It?

We don't choose when and where we are born, our parents or our genes. If we are very unlucky with any of those - and in many times and places, many are - we don't even live long enough to exclaim, It Isn't Fair!

Parents push the notion of Fairness as a way of settling disputes among squabbling children. It seems to work which may explain why politicians copy the strategy. I doubt it's because they have read John Rawls's A Theory of Justice .

But politicians aren't elected to be fair. They are elected to push agendas which offer benefits to some at the expense of others. So when they say (as the Conservatives were saying not so long ago)that they will reduce Inheritance Tax, that's not because it's Fair to do so but because there are lots of voters out there thinking about the big inheritance they are going to get when their Dear Parents eventually (and why does it have to be so long coming?) die. They don't want to see it taxed away. They aren't thinking about Fairness; they just want the money.

Social democratic parties have generally pushed the view that the job of government is Redistribution from richer to poorer and they have argued - or assumed - that this is the core of Fairness. This automatically creates a space for right wing parties to exclaim, Oh No It Isn't!

That is true. Justice in the nursery often involves ensuring that the small child gets the same number of strawberries as the big child - fairness in this instance is actually egalitarian, with entitlement simply based on being a person.

But justice in economic and social life is much more complicated because it has to take into account how the poor got to be poor and the rich got to be rich. Entitlement is connected to a narrative history not to abstract identity as a person. If you are poor because you spent your inheritance at the gaming table, well, Tough. It's not the government's job to tax someone (anyone, in fact) so that you can go back to the gaming table.

But suppose you didn't squander an inheritance. Suppose you just never had a chance. Isn't it the job of government to try to make life fairer than genes or parents would otherwise make it? In other words, isn't the job of government to correct life's unfairness?

One answer is that it is if by that means you can produce a better outcome for everyone. If you transfer resources from the well-off to the deprived, you indirectly benefit the better off. The streets are safer and that outcome can be achieved at a cost less than the cost of locking up the poor.

The trouble with this argument is that it simply appeals to the Prudence of the better off. It says that you can buy off trouble.

That is a belief which comes easily to an elected politician. Gordon Brown really had no other political credo than a belief that you could always buy off trouble. But someone else might reject Prudence and when warned about Trouble could simply say, Bring It On! That's what Mrs Thatcher did. That's what happens in many countries as a matter of course. But Trouble has a habit of spiralling until life becomes, for everyone, nasty, brutish and short.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The View from Waterloo Bridge

There was a time, twenty years ago perhaps, when I disliked London. It was dirty and run down. Margaret Thatcher had abolished the Greater London Council and it showed.

Things are much better now and there are things about London I really like.

One is the view from Waterloo Bridge. Look to the east or look (especially) to the west and the panorama is spectacular, especially at night. Both old and new contribute and, whether by accident or design, the colour palette is limited and harmonious. There's no argument, it's wonderful and it's enabled by the very open nature of the bridge, with its low parapets and so on.

Take a look before it's too late. They have been doing roadworks on Waterloo Bridge. Large - very large - pairs of black posts have gone up on the west side pavement, the length of the bridge. Soon vast traffic signs will be nailed to the posts. They will destroy what I have been describing.

I have written to the Mayor of London, not somethig I normally do. We shall see.