Thursday, 27 December 2012

How To Make Taxation Popular

This is quite a long and serious Blog post, so bear with me.

Thanks to the efforts of government Treasuries around the world, we take it for granted that our Taxes all go into one big Pot for our governments to spend as they see fit. This assumption needs to be challenged. First, because it facilitates wasteful expenditure, which is often rampant (it certainly is where I live, in the UK). Second, because it allows governments to spend large sums on causes which - if they had to approve them - voters would never agree to.

Suppose, for example, that Britain had a War Tax system in place: If a government wanted to go to war, then it would have to finance the war from the proceeds of a separate War Tax. The direct costs of a war would be those over and above those incurred by maintaining regular armed forces. So it would include the cost of bullets and bombs used, transport and other logistic costs, additional wages paid out for active service duties, compensation for the victims of  mistaken targetting, and so on through a very long list.

Mr Blair would have found it much harder to launch his vanity war on Iraq if he had been obliged to get support for the funding as well. And if he had succeeded, we would still be paying an Iraq War Tax - for example, to compensate victims of our abuse.

It's no bad thing if governments don't always get their way. But if they went down the route I am proposing, they might actually find it easier in many areas to secure popular support for taxation - and popular support means, among other things, that people will make less effort to avoid or evade those taxes.

In many aspects of our lives, it is not hard to see how specific - purpose, ring-fenced taxation would work. A national government maintaining a national road network would fund it from vehicle licensing or fuel taxes or ... In my view, fuel taxes are the fairest method since they automatically link tax paid to use made of the road network. In a rough way, they are also progressive since the richer man in his non-fuel economical car pays more per kilometre than the poorer man in his more fuel-efficient vehicle.

But what about Benefits? Ah, yes, what about Benefits?

One hundred years ago in the UK, voters signed up to the idea of state Benefits as things which were paid out from a compulsory state Insurance scheme. There were defined contributions and were - or could be - defined benefits directly related to the actuarial calculations of the scheme's managers.

In the UK, we still have National Insurance numbers and we still pay National Insurance contributions. But the Treasury does not like this and it has made the relation between Insurance contributions and benefits as non-transparent as possible.

Instead, the Treasury prefers to run Ponzi schemes, in which you pay out to those in need of benefits now out of the general taxes of those who don't currently need benefits - and keep your fingers crossed that you can stay one step ahead of bankruptcy.

But if you are trying to pay pensions to an ageing population out of the taxes of a shrinking work force, then bankruptcy is the inevitable result - though it may be disguised for some years by reckless borrowing. As Greece has shown us, reckless borrowing is something banks are very willing to facilitate.

The only long-term viable solution is to make people face up to the fact that if you want a pension then you have to save for it - and that this will cost you a LOT. And governments seem reluctant to tell voters this truth. In France, President Hollande's first act on election in 2012 was to LOWER the pensionable age for some groups of workers (who of course had just voted for him). This is at least as suicidal as the American Congress's current fascination with falling over the fiscal cliff.

In short, taxation will only become popular when those who pay taxes know what they are for - and when their overall level has been reduced because Insurance schemes have replaced the current electoral-bribe system of Handout Benefits.

A good measure of progress towards the goals I am setting would be the abolition of VAT. This is a regressive tax on poorer people which produces one of the biggest all-purpose government slush funds. What's good enough for the Channel Islands - which don't have to have VAT because we have set them up to suck serious taxable money away from the UK - is good enough for the UK too. We just need to reverse the direction of suck.




Friday, 21 December 2012

My Predictions for 2013

I just looked at my Predictions for 2012, made a year ago. Three are wrong. There was no new UK foreign policy disaster (at any rate, not one bigger than The War of the Ecuadorean Embassy). There were no new urban riots in August 2012. And Michael Gove is still in charge of Education - really extraordinary that this is so.

One is possibly right: Alex Salmond may be more popular than a year ago despite huge efforts on the part of the Unionist parties to ensure that he isn't.

In these circumstances, I make no predictions for 2013. I wouldn't put money on any of my hunches.

However, I do have the feeling that in London 2013 is going to be a good year for new-to-the-scene criminals without Twitter accounts. The Metropolitan Police is now entirely committed to feet-on-the-desk investigations of crimes against media personalities and crimes committed many years ago by the decrepit and dead.

And with that reassuring thought, I wish you an enjoyable End of Year. Just take care in the New Year.


Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Sex stereotyping at NEXT

Christmas is coming, I have a one year old grandchild and so finding myself in a large branch of NEXT, I wandered into the "Kids Bedroom" section. I thought I might find a(nother) present.

A lot has changed since my own children were young, a quarter century ago. Everything is now sex stereotyped. Everything is pink OR blue and to save some old fool like me from transgendering their unfortunate grandchild, boxes are stamped in big letters BOY or GIRL. So buses and trains are BOY. I can't tell you what was stamped GIRL because at this point I gave up and left. I came home, went online to the hated Amazon and bought a box of old-fashioned, sensible Brio wood building bricks which don't come stamped BOY or GIRL. I hope my grand daughter will enjoy playing with them.

I suppose NEXT tells us a lot about Middling England, which has rejected the egalitarian nonsense which many of us believed  back in the 1980s. Now we know we got it all wrong. There are boys and there are girls. Sex and Gender are the same thing (so much so that that people now use "Gender" where they used to use "Sex").

There are boys and there are girls. And in the same manner, there are the riff-raff and there are our  nice children who go to the nice Faith schools New Labour gave us. God Save The Queen..

But, you might say, Middling England is in favour of Gay Marriage. True enough - and if it wasn't, Mr Cameron wouldn't support it. But this rather confirms a prejudice I have about all this earnest promotion of Gay Marriage.

I think it's basically part of a conservative movement, a reaction against all that 1980s criticism of marriage and the family as not as good as they were cracked up to be.  Gay people have become conservative and no longer want to offer us any version of an alternative lifestyle; they want the same lifestyle as Middling England. They want to  buy pink toys for their girl children and blue toys for the boys.

And, in due course, they will want to have divorces as vicious as those enjoyed by heterosexuals


Wednesday, 5 December 2012

The Press Rescued from Leveson - Thank You, Kate

At the time of the 1953 East German Uprising, Bertolt Brecht satirised the reaction of the Communist Party authorities. Shaking their heads sadly, they professed themselves very disappointed with the People and announced that they intended to create a new one. Which would adore them.

I laugh, but sometimes I struggle too. What hope for any revival of democratic politics in the United Kingdom when  it seems that half the population, male and female, told that Kate is pregnant, wets its collective knickers?

The timing could not have been better, even if unintended - though the timing is so good that there must have been some hidden hand at work. All the nasty newspapers can now drop all other stories - all those unpleasant stories -  in favour of Daily Bulletins on the progress of The Pregnancy.

And at the end of it, there will be a Royal Birth and yet another Heir to The Throne and David Cameron will be tempted to give Middling England yet another Day Orff to descend on London  and wave their silly little flags.

Why don't they all just emigrate to the Costa del Sol? There is no hope for this place whilst these people remain.


Monday, 3 December 2012

I am inclined to agree with Ian Hislop ... The Press and the Police

The Metropolitan Police and Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs seem to have this in common: they adopt a "light touch" approach to the regulation of the powerful. Faced with evidence of criminal  or very dodgy doing by a seriously big corporation - well, they don't really want to know. After all, we know these people. We play golf with them; we eat dinner with them; we provide them with horses to ride.

Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye, argues that laws already existed to deal with the crimes of News International and others. Theft, burglary, bribery and so on are good old-fashioned crimes. Coppers ought to recognise them when they see them and proceed as they're supposed to. You're nicked. We don't need new laws to "regulate" the Press; we need the Metropolitan Police to do its job. Leveson did not find it palatable to state this homely truth.

There seems no particular reason why Met Police officers should be best buddies with the apparatchiks of Press barons but they have been to a remarkable degree. The only real explanation is that police officers want to feed stories to the Press, knowing that in one way or another the press will express its gratitude. Politicians cultivate their Press contacts for similar reasons.

HMRC is now a tainted brand because - for the first time in my life - it's out in the open that it is indulgent towards those who ought to pay lots of tax but intend only to pay a little. It's not exactly deference; it's more like collusion. If we began to pursue cases of "historic evasion" going back to the 70s and 80s, I think it would be at least as eye-opening as investigations into "historic abuse".

But it's not entirely HMRCs fault. Parliament votes for the laws which create taxes and exemptions from taxes. Parliament also creates the principal tax havens in which big corporations and rich individuals seek shelter from the levels of taxation which only poor people end up paying. The House of Lords plays an important role in ensuring that the voice of the rich and powerful is heard. Well, that's not surprising; it's what they are paid for.

So I'll go with Ian Hislop on the Press. Enforce the laws we do have. And on taxation, focus on the role of Parliament in making it all so easy not to.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Jobs for the Girls? But why would you want to take over the Church of England?

What baffles me is this, Why do so many women join voluntary organisations which - essentially - reject them? And do so in preference to joining other organisations which would welcome them?

If you believe that your God created all human beings equal in every sense important to the conduct of daily and spiritual life, then if you want to join a religious organisation why not join one which shares that rather important view? And if one does not exist, then why not create one?

What is the attraction of these dreadful old organisations - corrupt, unpleasant, failing - which open the pages of their Books to show you chapter and verse that God doesn't want you - maybe for a flower arranger but not for a bishop and most definitely not for a Pope (and that he wears a skirt is not to be taken as any kind of concession).

I think the short answer is this: Money and Power. Religious organisations like the Church of England and even more so the Roman Catholic Church are not only very corrupt; they are also immensely rich and powerful. In England, they have their  fingers in every pie - especially our schools.

Rich and powerful they can offer jobs, salaries and rather nice housing. So, unfortunately, I come to the conclusion that what motivates this strange desire that the C of E should drop the Book and behave as if it is something it isn't - well, that what motivates this desire is simply the desire for a share of the pie. Not the spiritual pie, which has no need of worldly set-ups like the C of E, but a very material pie. There could be an awful lot of jobs for the girls. After all, nowadays, not many men want them anyway.

To be honest, I think it would be more ethical to go and work for a hedge fund. There, at least, there is no Book which says you can't do it - only some assumptions, habits and prejudices which can be changed. The Boys who work for the funds at least know that there is no Book in which God told us only Boys can do the job.

Margaret Thatcher joined the Conservative Party because it was the most appropriate vehicle in which to promote the values she held and to pursue a political career. When it came to going after the top job, there was a small problem dealing with prejudice - but, interestingly, not a huge one. And Margaret Thatcher was no feminist, no member of the Sisterhood before or after she reached the top.

There is no reason to suppose that women who want top jobs in the C of E are automatically going to be nice people, feminists, progressives, honest, whatever. Maybe half of them are just Margaret Thatchers who have seen the inside of Lambeth Palace and like what they see. Whereas I see it as ripe for redevelopment.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Gathering Winter Fuel Payments


I got my first Christmas Present today: my Winter Fuel Payment is on its way. I am over 60 and I live alone and on that basis I qualify for £200 tax free, before Christmas. Click on the image to read their gift message.

If you read this carefully and think about it a bit, it's quite easy to see that the whole thing is a dishonest scam.

First, ask yourself, when do the heaviest winter heating bills drop through the letter box? Well, my guess is end of March / beginning of April - the bill for the first quarter of the year. Alternatively, if you spend the winter on the Costa del Sol -  as very many older Brits do - there are no winter heating bills.

So why does the Pension Service stress that "We aim to make all payments by Christmas"? Answer: to help meet the cost of seasonal celebrations. If they said that in the first line of their letter, it would be more honest.

Second, they remind you that you don't have to pay income tax on this handout. Who is that good news for? Well, obviously, for higher rate taxpayers. A forty per cent payer would lose £40 quid if the £200 was taxable; a 20% payer only £20. Put another way, a forty percent payer would have to earn a pre-tax £333 to end up with £200 in the bank; a twenty percent payer would have to earn only £250.

So the Pension Service is giving more help to better off people than to worse off people.

Third, why is this a separate payment and not something incorporated into the State pension? After all, this Winter Fuel Payment requires a whole bureaucracy to itself, located it seems in Motherwell. Wouldn't it be more cost efficient to add £4 (or £5 since the income is taxable) to my weekly pension (currently on £117) than make this separate payment to me? And wouldn't that also automatically correct the regressiveness of the present tax-free handout system?

Perhaps so, says a Government voice, butt if we give these pensioners an extra few quid a week  they will squander it on booze and fags. Better keep it in the piggy bank for them until their winter heating bills come round. 

Er, but they don't come round until end of March. And giving it to them just before Christmas simply means bigger Christmas presents for the grandchildren - or a crate of booze for themselves.

But then there is another Government voice, but sotto voce. Two hundred quid tax free from the Government, just before Christmas. Thank'ee very much, Guv'nor. Yes, the Government wants you to feel gratitude and doff your cap - and if you haven't got a cap to doff, well, at least you can show your appreciation by Voting for Them at the next election.

Mr Gordon Brown has said that he is proud of his past role in finding Exchequer pennies to fund the Winter Fuel Payment. I have explained his motives in the paragraphs above.

But now ask, What would you actually do if you really wanted to help older and more vulnerable people with their heating costs?

There are several possibilities. Here are just two, neither of which need result in additional expenditure.

You could add the £4 or £5 per week to the State pension as indicated above. Since the State pension is taxable, this would not be a regressive approach. And you economise on bureaucratic overheads.

You could put the Winter Fuel Payment money into a fund which paid for loft insulation and double glazing in any house or flat which didn't have them and which was occupied by someone over 65 at the due date (I won't buy into the over 60 absurdity of the present scheme). It would be irrelevant whether the person benefitting was a home owner or a tenant, since the aim would be to "help meet the cost of winter heating bills" by the very effective means of helping reduce them. The contribution to costs could be 100% for anyone or it could be graduated according to income ( so, means tested).

The advantage of this approach is that you both help the elderly and contribute towards meeting Green energy targets. You are also doing something of benefit to all, not only in relation to emissions but in achieving improvement in the quality of the housing stock - which in much of the UK is dire. The young family who move into a deceased person's house benefit from the insulation and double glazing that was installed only a few years beforehand.







Saturday, 17 November 2012

The Economist 's Special Report on France 2012



Occasionally, I buy The Economist. Today I bought it because I  had read some flustered comments by French politicians about its front page cover.

The cover is the introduction to a 14 page Special Report on France which I just sat down and read. Typically for The Economist it is both lucid and decisive: this is the situation and this is the action required to put it right. The Report pursues some interesting by-ways but remains focussed on a few core themes: France's deficit and debt, the profligate French state, France's declining competitiveness, the stifling of new enterprise by French bureaucracy. Much of it struck me as familiar and none of it seemed unbalanced. - or Pot calling Kettle: most of the quotations come from French nationals close to the heart of French economic and political life or its analysis. There are no Brits sounding off in this Report.

France's state budget has never been balanced in any year since 1974. As a result, public debt has grown from 22% to 90% of GDP. Public Expenditure stands at 57% of GDP and provides agreeable employment for an army of state employees, some of whom have the job of making sure the wheels of industry do not turn or do not turn too fast or do not turn on Sundays and so on and so forth.

It's not in quite the same predicament as Greece but the approach of French politicians has been basically the same as Greece's: being able to borrow money is God's way of letting you get re-elected. When it comes to taking hard decisions, the Enarks are Eunarks. The worst The Economist can think to say of M. Hollande is that he has neither a sufficient sense of the crisis challenging France or the balls to tackle it.

France does have an industrial base, but it has little by way of new industry and the small and medium sized industrial sector is small and still choked by regulation. Many French companies elect to stop growing when they get to 49 employees. Over that,  meeting the demands of state bureaucracies becomes onerous.

I would like to feel at ease with France and in France but - even though I speak and read the language reasonably fluently - I don't. This is partly because the State is everywhere. Recently, for example, I got a flyer for a philatelic exhibition in Amiens 2013. Now to me stamp collecting is one of those things in which the State just does not need to interest itself. All that matters to the State is that stamp dealers pay their taxes and collectors their inheritance taxes. It's pretty much like that in the UK. Stamp exhibitions are organised by private clubs or commercial fair organisers who rent out exhibition space and do the organising, the publicity and so on. There are no Permits to be obtained, no Mayors expecting to open the proceedings, no State bureaucracies to be thanked.

Not so in France. My flyer has only one email address on it -  www.amiens.fr - even though the exhibition is notionally organised by the (non-state) French Federation of Philatelic Societies. Why isn't it their email address on the flyer? How come City Hall is the address to write to?

My flyer (rather more expensively produced than the average UK flyer) also carries sponsorship logos from Picardie and Somme - basically, from local government which in France (according to The Economist) has rather more money to spend than its UK equivalent..

So what should really be an event organised on private initiative - by an association of collectors or (as is often the case in Germany) by a small company specialising in organising such things - becomes top-heavy with State bureaucratic involvement.

Now, President Hollande, what I really want to hear from you is a declaration that you will pull back the frontiers of the French state and leave stamp collecting to its own devices.


Sunday, 11 November 2012

Brighton Seafront, Remembrance Sunday, 11 November 2012

It's a wonderfully sunny day here in Brighton, not a cloud in the clear blue sky. After breakfast I set off for a walk along the seafront and back. It was very busy and I must have passed hundreds of other walkers - all generations,both sexes, mostly white. Maybe ten percent of them - perhaps less - were wearing poppies. I was a bit surprised: this is Remembrance Sunday itself.

But I don't any more wear a poppy myself and, if others don't, their reasons may overlap with mine.

The poppy has become a badge of the London political establishment. Their Club sends round a circular telling them when to start wearing their poppies - every year, a day earlier so it seems. It's a way of showing each other that they are all in it together. And I think they think it will ward off criticism. A few of them will be hoping you will forget they once got temporarily suspended from  the Club for corruption, fraud, perjury ...

As a young leftie, I wore my poppy. I felt I owed it. If Hitler had won, there wouldn't have been any young Lefties. (But ditto if Stalin had won).

Now I feel that the two Wars were very different and that it is wrong to join them together in this way.

In the Second World War, the United Kingdom played the main supporting role with the USA and the Soviet Union taking the brunt - the USA financially; the Soviet Union in body count. It was a just war, and we are lucky that so many were willing to fight and die to defeat Hitler.

In the First World War, Britain was one of  six Empires which got themselves embroiled in prolonged, senseless slaughter which only showed their contempt for ordinary human life. Austria-Hungary, France,Germany, the Ottoman Empire, Russia, England all sent young men to senseless and often horrible deaths - their fate sealed by terrifying levels of political and bureaucratic incompetence and inhumanity.

The only interesting question about World War One is Why, at the end of it, so few Emperors, Kings, Ministers and Generals got strung up from the lamp posts. It would have been a crude but justified holding to account.

As is often the case, the really top people  got off very lightly. Only Nicholas II was put up against a wall and shot. The Kaiser was allowed to totter off into exile and in England - well, the Establishment carried on much as before -  though the Military did decide that trench warfare should be replaced by bombing civilians from great heights. Arthur "Bomber" Harris began developing the technique in 1920s Iraq (click on the "Bombing civilians" label below to read more about this).

Well, that was my Remembrance Sunday walk.

Friday, 9 November 2012

Council for the Defence of British Universities? Or of a Pleasant Lifestyle?

The Great and the Good have just founded a Council for the Defence of British Universities. They reckon that higher education is threatened by its cruel exposure to market forces - home students made to pay up-front for tuition, international students recruited on their ability to pay and given degrees in exchange [ maybe I made that bit up], academics made to account for their activities with new research time funded only when  there are results to show for the last tranche of funding.

I am not convinced by their anguish.  I think these academics (most of them it seems my age or older) actually want to defend a lifestyle, admittedly a very pleasant one but not necessarily one which should be funded out of other people's taxes.

There are big differences between Sciences, Social Sciences and Humanities and I am only going to write about Humanities. I will come at it this way.

There was a time when important work in the Humanities got done by people in demanding professional  employment or by those whose private means or pensions freed them from the daily commute of professional life. Both were willing to devote time and energy to their hobby. I guess most of them were chaps, though not all.

Nowadays, a city banker is more likely to spend his weekend snorting cocaine than translating a codex. The real challenge is to persuade him that he might find the latter more satisfying.  And from the point of view of efficient use of public resources, how much better that the banker does it out of passion than that some academic of modest talent has to be given a lifetime salary to get just a little bit of translation out of him.

It's not so long ago that there were academics who boasted that they had never published anything. I was taught by one at Oxford. You wouldn't know his name. These people were often quite widely read and knowledgeable but the most important fact about them was that they were able to live very pleasant middle class lives without having to put in much by way of a day's work. Some drank too much and some were very fit from strenuous hill walking. You could fill in the details of the lifestyle to suit yourself. The most important thing though was that you didn't have to worry about where next month's pay packet was coming from.

In other words, being an academic was a bit like being a vicar, and just as few vicars shook the foundations of theology so few academics rocked the boat of their chosen subject. That would have been too much of a distraction.

And when academics did write - and do write - it's often unreadable and unread. Go into a big university library and look along the tops of the bound journals of philosophy or classical studies or art history or ... ninety percent of the pages have never been opened.

Bring on the bankers producing  new accounts of the life of Boudicca. Bring on the traders fighting over the correct interpretation of  Adam Smith. Bring on the geeks and the nerds able to make it all accessible for free on the Internet. It does already happen: Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan) is not an academic, nor is  Liaquat Ahmed (Lords of Finance - a really splendid history) . What such serious researchers may need is  a long stretch of writing time at the end of a project. This is the kind of thing foundations like the Leverhulme Trust can provide. It's not necessary to turn people into full-time academics.










Saturday, 3 November 2012

I Have a Cold

Though I may occasionally tell you what I had for breakfast, it is a Rule of this Blog not to use it for Self-Pity.  So when I tell you that I Have a Cold I am not looking for the global sympathy vote. I just want to explain the absence of recent Blogging.

You can't write a decent Blog with a Cold as Nasty as this one.

It's a German cold and it has worked its way through my body with chilling Germanic efficiency since I returned from a trip last Sunday evening with the throat feeling that things were going wrong. They were and have been wrong now for six days.

This Cold has ticked all the boxes for Cold and avoided all those for Flu, offering no way of maneouvring it into the Flu category: no fever, no desperate necessity to lie down, no disturbance to digestion or bowels.

But, surely, I say to myself, a mere Cold can't make you ache so much. Oh yes it can, says my non-self-pitying self, a German cold can. And that's what you have got. Paracetamol is the only answer and so Paracetamol it has become, even though it is something I normally avoid. Aspirin is my relief drug of choice: aspirin is good for your heart; paracetamol is bad for your liver and my liver has had two visits from hepatitis so I am a bit protective.

So the recourse to Paracetamol (I confess: Paracetamol Plus with decongestants and expectorants added) is only because this is the worst cold I have had for years and it's unfair to have it just one week after you have lined up for your (second) annual flu jab - they started me last year.

Life's unfairness. We should treat it  lightly. Shit happens. Get over it. But a sense of unfairness probably explains my breakfast this morning. Not muesli and bran - too hard to swallow; tickles the throat; makes you cough and splutter. Instead, Green and Black's Organic Chocolate Ice Cream served with a freshly chopped Williams' Bon Chretien  [in Australia: Bartlett] pear. 

I feel better now (I quote some Famous Last Words, of course].





Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Public Expenditure and GDP: it's not so simple.

In a recent Guardian article, Aditya Chakraborthy pointed out that the UK government aims to reduce public expenditure by 2017 to around 40% of Gross Domestic Product - and that this will bring it down to American levels. We are supposed to be shocked. How could any rational person want to bring public expenditure down to American levels? All decent people surely think that it should be rising to Scandinavian levels - fifty percent.

To me, this is the wrong way to think about things. What matters is not the level of public expenditure but what it is spent on - and what it is spent on depends on the culture and the political culture of a country. Higher public expenditure does not, in itself, produce a more civilised, fairer or nicer society. And in some cases, it may be possible to get a better society with lower public expenditure rather than higher.

In the UK voters are quite keen on vanity expenditure by governments and they are quite keen on circuses. So public expenditure on the monarchy, royal weddings, the Olympics and the Red Arrows is not controversial. And governments themselves are quite keen on military spending, on handing out lucrative contracts to the private sector and on keeping corruption alive in the shape of the House of Lords. That's a lot of pubic spending already.

In a different culture, all these expenditures - and especially the military ones - would be reduced or eliminated. The nice Scandinavian countries are much less keen on wars than we are, so they spend less on fighting them. Much less.

It is often thought that taxation and expenditure needs to be higher than forty percent of GDP in order to reduce Inequality. You tax the rich and transfer money to the poor, less the (considerable) overhead costs of administering such schemes of redistribution. (At the moment, of course, here in the UK we don't tax the rich. We tax the moderately well-off who only have to be earning thirty odd thousand a year to be stuffed for forty percent Income Tax - an extortionate rate no rich person would dream of paying).

But even if we could sort out the tax system so that the rich really did get taxed, I am not sure that  this is the best way of  creating a more equal society. It would be much better to stop inequality at source. That would mean, for example, caps (ceilings) on legal remuneration. Pay packages in excess of (say) a million simply would not be allowed. Inheritances would likewise be capped with 100% tax  kicking in at (say) over £10 million. That's how you create a more level playing field for each new generation.

At the other end, instead of subsidising wages from taxes the state would enforce  higher minimum wages than we are currently familiar with. No one should really be working for less than £10 per hour - in London, more.

Along these lines, it might even be possible to create a fairer, more egalitarian society which was also a low tax society. There is no inherent virtue in taxation and in countries like the UK the willingness of citizens to be taxed really allows over taxation combined with immensely wasteful government expenditures yielding no discernible public good.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

The Crimes of Dead People

The crimes of dead people are rarely matters for the police. But the crimes of dead celebrities are things the police are always happy to investigate simply because it is a way to avoid work and enjoy lunches with journalists instead. That is a good enough reason for asking for some better justification than the mere fact that crimes were committed in the past by someone now dead. Only when the crimes of the dead may lead to discovery of crimes of the living are they worth police time.

Newspapers like the crimes of dead people because they can report them without fear of libel writs descending. In the current feeding frenzy over the corpse of Jimmy Savile it is a certainty that false and sexed up claims will be made, just as they were over the corpse of Diana Princess of Wales. Newspapers are even harder to sell now and so we should be even more cautious when we read (or, in my case, don't read) ever more lurid claims.

Historians can safely be left to investigate the crimes of very long dead people.

Where does the work of newspapers end and the work of historians begin? It simply depends on the forgetfulness of the living.

You will say that I neglect the fact that there are often living victims of dead people's crimes who feel they have had no justice and no redress. And sometimes simply, no money out of it.

I have to say that my general feeling is this. If the victims think they can gain something from police investigations or some quasi-judicial process which tries and condemns, they are looking in the wrong place. Neither the police or courts are sensitive to human suffering, nor are they designed to be.

Likewise, any victim who thinks that some tabloid newspaper is going to help them, in any way other than financially, will be fairly rapidly disillusioned. Newspapers use people and cast them aside when their usefulness reaches its use by date. Newspapers are not good friends.

So I don't think Justice for the Victims is served by newspaper frenzy designed to boost circulation or by police enquiries conducted by officers looking for things to leak to the press. Justice for Victims probably requires quiet meetings in small groups, with appropriate facilitators and recorders, and careful public statements at the end of it all. And if those statements are the truth and nothing but the truth, they will serve the victims' need for justice much better than a headline which is here today and forgotten tomorrow.


Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Street Walkers - a new way of managing cities

It's a stereotype but like many stereotypes has some truth in it. Most city managers (middle ranking and senior local government officials in the UK) work in offices. They attend meetings (long and boring), they write Memoranda and Briefing Papers and they Reply to Letters. They often arrive at the office by car from some suburb and return home the same way. Sometimes they see very little of the city . They can be very out of touch with the lives of those who inhabit the cities they manage - in the same way that rich people living in gated communities can be out of touch with the way poor (and middling) people live.

This is a major problem.

But one good way to see what's wrong (or right) with cities is to walk round them, taking your time and observing closely. Here in Brighton, it used to be (maybe still is) a requirement for the official known as the Seafront Manager that he or she walk the seafront at regular intervals. That's a very good idea.

I want to generalise it. Highly paid managers go to seed if they are allowed to just sit in offices all day. Half the time, they should be out on the beat, walking an area of the city for which they are responsible, talking to anyone who will talk to them. And they should be able to instruct those tasked with such jobs to deal with problems they see. That might be a small and immediate problem, like a sofa abandoned on the pavement, but it might also be a bigger problem.

Today it was raining in Brighton, not heavily but steadily. Along the main seafront road, the drains weren't coping and vehicles were sending up serious volumes of spray onto pavements and  pedestrians. Something isn't working. The drains are blocked. A city manager who had to walk the pavement and get soaked would want to know why they were blocked and what arrangements ought to be in place to ensure that they stayed unblocked. And even for this relatively small problem, management skills would be needed to diagnose it fully and to solve it.

A city manager walking the streets would be free to have bright ideas which might require a lot of expenditure to carry out. The other day, I blogged about Western Road, Brighton. If a city manager had to walk the full street  once or twice a week, no way would he or she let it stay the way it is. The whole set of current arrangements would be upended.

Street walking managers would be motivated managers. Over time they would see things getting better every time they went out on the beat. And people would start being nice to them.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Watch the Road!

Continuing from yesterday's Blog:

Watch the Road! is something those electronic sign boards never tell you to do. Watch Your Speed! is a different matter. They are keen on that.

But driving isn't about studying your instrument panel. Safe driving is (mainly) about watching the road while you drive a car you take care to ensure is roadworthy. Tires, for instance.

Aircraft pilots spend a lot of time studying their instrument panels. Sometimes they go to sleep and rely on the autopilot. But the cockpit is still at the front of the plane and I imagine ( and I hope) that pilots look out of the window as they take off and come into land. When the plane is on the ground, pilots walk round it and do a visual inspection (I think this is a requirement). Once I was waiting for a Ryanair flight to take off when the pilot announced he had noticed a nail in his front tire. He wasn't worried about take off, but he was a bit worried about landing. So we had to wait for a new tire to be dropped off and the wheel to be changed. It's not all autopilot.

Driving is never autopilot, even with cruise control. You have to look ahead (and behind) all the time. The best thing about the new model Skoda Octavia to which I have recently upgraded is that it has better wing mirrors than any I have ever had -  on both sides, I get a terrific view. On German motorways, they really make things easier.

I think the Highways Agency in the UK imagines itself as a sort of land version of Air Traffic Control, though instead of communicating with individual pilots it communicates to everyone through those electronic sign boards I wrote about yesterday. If that's how they are thinking, they haven't thought hard enough. And I pray  that Air Traffic Controllers don't try to get away with the kind of false and fatuous communications you get on the signboards.

I walked past a car today with a sticker in the rear window "Back off! I'm sticking to the limit". Well, to me, that's dangerous thinking. I imagine someone hunched over, gripping the wheel and muttering, "I'm sticking to the limit" in defiance of all that is going on around him (it's certain to be a him).

When you drive, you should be watching the road and responding appropriately. The signs may say "40" but you may need to go 20. On a motorway, it is often safe to go 80 or 90 and to help keep traffic moving, you should. The government knows that but pretends not to. On a motorway, you create a hazard if you drive at an inappropriately low speed. The government knows that too.

I don't think I am a very good driver, though in 40 years driving in the UK I have never been prosecuted  or picked up any penalty points. But I do check my tires and stop when I am tired. And I watch the road.



Saturday, 6 October 2012

"Queue Ahead". The Department of Transport's Big Mistake

In recent years, England's Department for Transport has invested heavily in large electronic signboards which now blight every English motorway (I don't know about Scotland or Wales - I don't drive there). France has done the same, on a lesser scale. Germany has yet to succumb - it is still spending its money on road building.

I don't think these signboards (I think of them as Gantries) can deliver what I guess was promised, "real time information". I think they make the roads less safe.  I think they do not improve traffic flow. If those three things are true, then the Department for Transport should switch off these expensive toys and sell the gantries for scrap.

Let me to try to develop the argument from the example of "Queue Ahead", probably the most common infomessage flashed up - rivalled only by the nannymessage "Don't Drink and Drive".

So somewhere Ahead a camera has revealed a Queue to a Control Centre operative (or maybe a computer program) and the message is flashed down the line, with some time delay which I can't estimate.

If you are not already sitting in a Queue when you read the message - which is then simply fatuous rather than informative - then you will make some response. Some drivers will slow down in anticipation. Other drivers, familiar with Queues Ahead which no longer exist when you get there or Queues Five Miles Ahead, do nothing. This uneven response is dangerous - vehicles are slowing or not slowing in an unpredictable way. That is a recipe for an accident.

By way of contrast, I give this example. Recently, I was driving up the A20 from the Channel Tunnel, in heavy traffic, when suddenly - with absolutely no warning - there was a torrential downpour accompanied by lots of lightning. Visibility dropped dramatically and instantly. Remarkably, not only did all vehicles reduce their speed within seconds - they all reduced to 40 mph (I checked when I realised what was happening). So the pattern of traffic was maintained - no one changed lane because no one needed to. And Nanny was nowhere to be seen.

There was probably a time when "Queue Ahead" made me slow down  but - so often was there no Queue to be found (whatever congestion the camera had found had cleared itself by the real time I got there) or else the Queue was five miles away -  that now I no longer do. "Queue Ahead" is now just an irritant - and irritated drivers are less safe drivers. This is a very good reason for scrapping these signs.

But there are other drivers who respond to "Queue Ahead" and dutifully slow down. They thus contribute to creating a Queue where there was none. This is very easily done.

Think of what happens when drivers spot a police car on Cruise Control at 68mph in the slow lane. The drivers brake. Within seconds a Queue develops, broken only as fast as drivers dare to overtake the police car. "Queue Ahead" has the same disruptive effect as the patrolling police car.

The moral is simple: if you want to keep traffic moving, switch off the signs. And keep police cars off motorways.










Thursday, 20 September 2012

Western Road, Brighton: A Case of Self-Destruct?

The other day I walked the length of Western Road, Brighton, from the Clock Tower to Palmeira Square and beyond onto Church Road. I wasn't in a hurry but I realised I never stopped to browse a shop window. Now for me this is odd: I was brought up on window shopping.

 Here's my explanation: You can't get near the shop windows. You have to walk in the middle of the pavement because outside the shops there is an endless procession of sandwich boards and other obstructions. Outside Argos, they even had an industrial pallet stacked with catalogues for you to take away.If you tried to walk along near the shop windows, you would be forever dodging or falling over.

 If a few shops put out sandwich boards, they benefit from the publicity. But if all do, then you just have pavement obstructions. In the same way, if a few people stand up at a concert they get to see better. If everyone stands up, no one can see.

 The pavements along Western Road have been widened on the road side in recent years. Close your eyes to their general squalor - chewing gum and grease stained - and you can almost imagine a boulevard. But when they were widened,the Council did not organise the relocation of "street furniture"towards the new kerbs. So you have Post Boxes and Waste Bins in the middle of the pavement rather than to the kerb-side.

The real walking decision - given you can't walk close to the shop windows - is between trying to stay in the middle or instead heading out to the kerb. Either way, what could have been a pleasant stroll turns into the navigation of an obstacle course. It must be a nightmare for a blind person or anyone in a wheelchair.

 Councils abhor a vacuum, so they have added new street furniture to the widened pavements including licensing a double whammy of sandwich boards on the kerb side. They make money from the sandwich boards (and from the shops and cafes who are allowed to spill their wares onto the pavement). It all looks to me very bad for business. You are so preoccupied navigating the jungle of the pavement that you don't have mental space to think about shopping.

 The initiative is unlikely to come from the Council but what Western Road needs is a No Sandwich Board Pact, with just a few cafes and greengrocers allowed to spill out, attractively, and vary the use of space. All the street furniture in the middle of the pavement needs to be moved to the kerb side - and probably half of it removed. You would then notice that there are actually a few trees along the way which would benefit from some TLC. You would be half way towards a boulevard.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Love Thy Neighbour's Children?

The Toff always chats amiably to the Taxi Driver. But he most definitely doesn't want his children to attend the same school as the taxi driver's. Fortunately, Eton exists.

The lecturer at Middle England University is always polite to his or her house cleaner but, of course, their children go to different schools. Sometimes socially segregated housing does the trick automatically; but when it doesn't, God steps in. Faith Schools boomed under the encouragement of Middle England New Labour and continue to boom under their successors. And so nowadays lecturers at Middle England University Do God. It reduces cognitive dissonance for them to believe that, actually, God isn't so bad after all. He improves your children's GCSE results.

The Churches are well aware that this is a bigger selling point than Eternal Salvation.

At the bottom of the heap, the children no one wants to love go to common schools.

Once upon a time, the common school was regarded as a vital institution of a democratic society. It was what taught children (and their parents) that they were all in it together, that you could only progress where there was some social solidarity. If there was to be any differentiation, it could only be in order to give talent a challenge or lack of ability some compensating help. There was no place for differentiation on the basis of social background.

Some countries seem to maintain traditions of common schooling. But not England. We do of course believe that we are all in it together: the rich man's children remain in his castle and the poor man's children at his gate.





Thursday, 13 September 2012

Doggies

Doggies are only taken for walkies because their owners don't want them to shit on their carpets. They want them to shit on the pavement or in the park. Here in Brighton, they want them to shit on the promenade, the lawns and the beach.

In most contexts, if a few people behave anti-socially it doesn't much matter. If a few people don't pay their train fares, the train company doesn't go bust. If most people don't, then it will. We can cope with small numbers of delinquents but not very large numbers.

When only a few people keep dogs - shepherds, blind people, security guards - dogs don't create a problem. When everyone feels they must own a doggy, then they do, if only because the absolute number of clueless or anti-social owners increases.

Nowadays, under social pressure, many owners walk behind their doggy with a shit bag, ready to pick up excrement and put it in a council bin (from which it will be removed and recycled at public expense). But not every owner is a willing shit picker. You see dogs being directed to places - like the stony beach rather than the tarmac promenade - which allow owners to convince themselves that it's not "realistic" to pick up the shit from that spot. They can persuade themselves that they are willing but not able. Even more so when their dog has diahorrea.

If you want to put things into perspective, next time you watch a dog shitting on the pavement, imagine that you are watching its owner squatting down - with another human standing ready with a plastic bag.

Of course, dogs create other problems. They can be noise polluters and even well-intentioned owners may be able to do little to control barking . And they bite children and postpersons, often for the first time so that even the best of owners could not have foreseen it. Some dogs are deliberately kept for attack and this is a different situation: it is clearly the owner who is acting anti-socially and wilfully so.

But the shit problem is the real dog problem. Every sunny weekend, here in Brighton, unwary human visitors will go to the beach or the promenade lawns and find themselves lounging in shit. They'll have it on their feet, their elbows, their hands. Some will be children. Our Council prides itself on being Dog Friendly.

Do I exaggerate? I had a look at information on the www.keepbritaintidy.org website.

There are between 6 500 000 and 7 400 000 dogs in the UK - since they don't have to be registered, these are best estimates. Each day, these dogs produce about 1 000 metric tonnes of shit.

Over half of all dog owners do not worm their dogs. That is why the majority of parks and open spaces in the UK are contaminated with eggs of the worm Toxocara Canis . These eggs are very robust and can survive for long periods before hatching.

About 100 cases of Toxocariasis in humans are diagnosed each year with around 50 of them causing serious eye damage. Nearly all those affected are children. There is no treatment or cure.

Aah,doggy woggies.




Tuesday, 11 September 2012

Tax Creep

The rich have the right idea. No one should be losing forty or fifty percent of their income to governments, democratic or despotic it doesn't matter. Why not? When governments - local and central - take that much money from you they have a serious problem knowing what to do with it. Half the time, they waste it. That's an empirical, documented fact. Better to pay twenty or twenty five percent in tax and have the money well spent because your governors have to think carefully what to do with it. It's a no brainer.

In his fine book Losing Small Wars, Frank Letwidge remarks that soldiers don't get medals for showing restraint, however heroic the restraint may be: you won't get a medal for not firing into the hostile crowd which surrounds you. Bravery must involve firing bullets.

Politicians and bureaucrats don't get rewards or promotions for not doing things. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson does not get credited for not sending British troops into Vietnam; he gets discredited for giving verbal support to the USA.

No bureaucrat ever thinks, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it". If you have been given a Budget - and especially if you had to fight to get it - then you must spend it. Otherwise you will get less next year. And you will be thought idle,incompetent and lacking in intitiative for not finding "Projects" on which to use up your Budget.

And when giving an Annual Report, any right-thinking bureaucrat will wring their hands and lament the fact so many worthy, desirable, praiseworthy, admirable Projects could not be undertaken because - hang your heads in shame, Masters - THE BUDGET WAS NOT BIG ENOUGH. ( This is basically what you say in an Arts Council report).

At the level of local government, the need to Do Things accounts for the major industry known as Minor Road Works. Your truly idle, incompetent and unimaginative local transport boss knows only this: you can get through that Budget by narrowing a road here, modifying a junction there, fooling around with the speed limits, adding half a cycle lane, tarting up the street lighting. Proceed like this and you will never have to face the challenge of doing anything Major . But in your Annual Report, your Annual Appraisal, you will be able to list an awful lot of Things Done.

There would be no Bonus, no Promotion for someone foolish enough to say, "Nothing else needed doing, so we returned the unspent part of our Budget to central funds".

In the early days, BBC radio news bulletins did not have a fixed length. They would end with the newscaster saying, "There is no more News tonight". That didn't last long. You don't build careers on that kind of idiocy.

Taxes creep up as politicians and bureaucrats find good causes which need money, most often wars. Trending steadily upwards over two centuries they rarely, if ever, fall back significantly. They are the the foundation of political reputations and bureaucratic careers. It does not matter if the money is squandered. In the world we live in, there are no punishments for failure. It is the taking part in spending all this money not the spending it effectively that is so handsomely rewarded.

It is a political tragedy that the case for low taxation is only made by right-wing courtiers to the rich and dodgy. There are sound progressive arguments for bringing down the overall tax burden, and especially on those who bear it because the rich and dodgy have decided (often with government blessing) that, well, taxation is not their cup of tea so they ain't gonna pay...

Trust: Why Zurich has better Public Transport than Brighton

Zurich is a filthy rich capitalist city. It also has one of the world's best publicly owned urban transport systems. Zurich's trams are fast, efficient and electrically powered.

Brighton UK is a relatively poor seaside resort which generates its income from restaurants and bars, language schools, universities, drink and drugs. For public transport, it relies on privately owned buses which are adorned with self-congratulatory advertisements. The buses are slow and polluting, even if less so now than in the past.

But much of the difference in the systems is due to differences in the degree of Trust people in the two cities place in each other, not to the wealth differences.

In Zurich, each tram stop is equipped with a large ticket machine. You buy your ticket and board the tram. There is no conductor to check your ticket and the job of the tram driver is to drive, not check tickets. There are inspectors, but not many of them. I have never been asked to show my ticket.

The calculation must be this: What you lose on free riders who don't buy a ticket you (easily) save on staff and ticket-checking machines. In addition, your trams are able to load and depart quickly from any given stop.

In principle, your kerbside ticket machines can be burgled. It just doesn't happen often enough to cause a problem. Maybe even the thieves in Zurich are proud of their public transport system.

In Brighton, there are no kerbside machines. Maybe the private bus company is too mean to install them. But more likely they reckon Brighton full of thieves and vandals. Machines wouldn't stand a chance.

So you board the bus and pay the driver. Yes, the driver. We don't have conductors any more - they double the number of staff needed to operate a bus. Nor do we have machines on the bus - too many thieves and vandals again.

Even though many passengers have passes to wave at the driver, it's nonetheless the case that Brighton buses are excruciatingly slow simply because the driver has to issue tickets. Your heart sinks when you see a large queue at the next bus stop where you will stop and load up. If humanly possible, I walk into and around the city just to avoid that.

The moral is quite simple. If you can trust other people, life is not only more pleasant but your economy is going to be more efficient because - in the example I have described - you cut the time needed to travel from A to B.

Building a Rapid Transit system is not just about Technology; it is also about Trust.

Monday, 30 July 2012

X,Y,Z

A writer should always know when to bring things to a close and never strive to keep alive for form's sake alone.

I have never done crosswords or Sudoko; I used to play a bit of chess but with no real talent. But I have been writing Compositions all my life. Now they may discharge my duty to remain Mentally Active. It is no accident that I chose to run through the Alphabet in the month which brought me my 65th birthday.

I had no advance plan; I made things up as I went along, and I hope it shows. For some letters, I had ideas in advance but always plumped on the day for something which felt as if it would write itself.

I had nothing in mind for letter X and for letter Z, I could only think of Zzzz. I did have a choice for Y.

I have often thought there is a nice essay to be written on the last lines of novels, even the last word - perhaps it's been done.

I never finished Joyce's Ulysses and probably never will, but I read Molly Bloom's soliloquy which concludes the novel and which, famously, ends with the word Yes:

and yes I said yes I will Yes.

yes yes Yes. It is life affirming and on its own ought to dispose of the idea that Joyce is merely a formalist - worse a cosmopolitan one in the purse-lipped rhetoric of F.R. Leavis.

yes yes Yes until we conclude that it is time to bring things to a close. No more.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Wild Thinking



The sky above, the earth around, the sea beneath have always provided us with things good to think with (Lévi-Strauss's choses bonnes à penser ) . Pansies are for thoughts, but so are the stars above, the creatures in the forest, the fish in the sea.

In pre-literate and pre-scientific societies, the natural world provides most of what there is to think with. The resemblance of a wild pansy to a pensive human face can set in train a whole chain of thoughts which, woven together with others, creates a vast network - a matrix, a structure, a cat's cradle - into which future thinking can or must be fitted in a process which Lévi-Strauss called bricolage - a term made so familiar by his work that it no longer needs to be translated.

The arrival of Books brings with it Peoples of the Book who no longer seek understanding from the skies above or the earth around but from their guiding Texts, their portable things to think with. Marxists scour the texts of Marx in no different a manner from religious scholars combing the Bible or the Qu'ran. All experience the satisfaction that their Texts can be made to yield things with which to think any and every situation.

Science goes against our nature in telling us to seek from nature not things which suit our ways of thinking but things which challenge them. Nature was not made for us to think with, though unless we have evolved to have some natural bent towards understanding it then we have no chance of understanding it at all ( a doctrine expressed most clearly by Charles Sanders Peirce). Science seeks to discipline our wild thinking, to tame the natural habitat of our thoughts in analogy and association, metaphor and metonymy, allegory and fable. Sometimes it succeeds.

For the artist (at least, the artist of the past) clay and marble, sound and silence, oil and watercolour are also things to think with. They are not - very definitely not - things with which we render concrete previously formulated thoughts. We run our materials through our hands, attend to them with an inner ear, judge them with our eyes and, in the context of the traditions (the media) to which we are heritors, wait for them to yield something which we could not have said in advance or been led to by contemplating the world of objects alone.

Pansies are for thought - but also for botanising and for painting.

_____________________________

(The cover illustration above is from the edition I read as a student in Paris, 1971 - 72, attending lectures by Lévi-Strauss later published as La Voie des Masques. I write about that book on my website www.selectedworks.co.uk under the title "The Way of the Masks")

Saturday, 28 July 2012

Vastness

For most (maybe all) of my childhood I lived in areas which were still polluted by smoke from fires and factory chimneys. Lower Belvedere, beside the Thames in Kent, where I lived from 1962 always smelt of the British Oil and Cake Mills factory in nearby Erith and just across the river there was the giant Fords of Dagenham plant, its huge red neon sign pointed towards the Thames. Occasionally, air pollution was so bad that, combined with weather conditions, it precipitated a pea souper - a fog dense enough to stop traffic. On one occasion, I had to walk the last few miles of my journey home from school and was ill for weeks afterwards.

When I went for my interview for admission to Oxford in the autumn of 1964, I stayed overnight. Returning to my lodgings in the dark, I was amazed - initially frightened - by the clear night sky, clearer than any I had ever seen. What had happened? There were stars. Not just a handful, but everywhere I looked. When years later (studying in Paris) I read Pascal, I had no problem when I came to "Le silence éternel de ces éspaces infinis m'effraye" (The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me).

Vastness has the power to terrify, to awe and to silence us. It doesn't even have to be complicated, just so big that the human scale of things is inapplicable. Edmund Burke's A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) still has one of the best accounts of our response to vastness.

In contrast, miniatures have no such power. They are often just curiosities, as when someone succeeds in writing the Lord's Prayer on the back of a postage stamp. (In Kyiv and no doubt in other cities, there is a Museum devoted to miniatures. It is interesting and maybe one professes amazement, but really it just shows that humans can set themselves perverse tasks).

There are no miniatures among the great works of art. The miniaturist who paints a portrait or even a whole battle inside a locket is recognised as having a craft skill and that is all. In contrast, if you blow up a quite ordinary photograph to a big enough size, you can get an aesthetic gain on what the photograph itself probably merits. (I don't know if they are still there, but at some point three of my photographs - views of entrances to courtyards in Yerevan - used to be on display in the University of Sussex. I had just made them big enough to dominate a wall)

This contrast between our reaction to vastness and to smallness surely explains why space exploration holds a continuing fascination which the microchip does not. And yet in my life time, it is miniaturisation rather more than space exploration which has transformed the world in which I live.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Unsponsorship

"The Time, sponsored by Accurist, ..."

It is no longer and that's a relief when you have to dial the Speaking Clock. But it was Accurist that gave me the idea of launching a Campaign for Unsponsoring Things (CUT). People like me would contribute small amounts (anonymously) and CUT would use it (anonymously) to unsponsor things. So they would go to BT and say, "OK. How much does it cost to remove the words sponsored by Accurist?" and a deal would be done.

If Accurist gave me the idea, it was Sponsored Municipal Flower Beds that made me think that CUT would really improve my life. I like flowers, a lot, and it's a pleasure to look at them - but not when framed by the name of some Estate Agent.

Worse, here in Brighton and Hove, sponsorship extends to the floral WELCOME display which greets motorists on their way into the city. I reckon that if you only want to WELCOME your visitors via a Sponsor then you don't want to Welcome them at all.

Imagine, you are going to invite some friends to a dinner party and you send out Invitations Sponsored by Pizza Poppa. If you are that dumb, you really do need to read How to Win Friends and Influence People.

Back in 1995 I visited Israel and planned to visit Yad Vashem (the principal Holocaust memorial and museum). I debated in advance whether it was the sort of place where you would take a camera or whether that would be offensive.

I found Yad Vashem in many ways moving and well-conceived: the black pillars and the railway wagon stay in my mind. But I was shocked to find that some things were Sponsored and not only that Sponsored by people who had their names displayed on little plaques . Of the ones I noticed, all appeared to be American. I just found it inappropriate and even offensive.

The modern Olympic Games would not exist without corporate Sponsorship, mostly from US based major corporations like Coca-Cola and MacDonalds. Now if the Olympic Games were unsponsored and we had to make do with amateur get-togethers, I think I might take an interest. It would remind me of how as a boy I went to football matches every Saturday and cheered on Dartford FC and no one told me I had to drink Coca Cola.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Time Management

Too many people try to walk and chew gum at the same time. This is the result of exposure to bad ideas about personal time management, specifically something called "Multi-tasking". More later.

It's often overlooked that the management of personal (individual) time is constrained by how public ( social ) time is managed. The management of public time is in the hands of governments, employers and religious organisations.

So there is a calendar with months and days and there is a clock.

The calendar is marked by religious organisations with holy days and by governments with public holidays and there is some overlap: in the UK, the government advises employers to lock out their workers on Good Friday and Easter Monday, the dates of which are variable and determined by religious astrologers. Few workers actually want holidays on these dates - in general, they would prefer holidays when the sun shines - so their ability to make good use of their time (personal time management) is undermined by the way public time is organised.

The clock is usually set by governments. Here in the south of England (where most of the UK population lives) we would like the clocks to be aligned with those across the Channel in Europe, yielding more daylight (all year round) after working hours. But Mr Cameron's government will not have it - despite the best efforts of a Tory MP, Rebecca Harris - and, as a direct result, not only are there more fatal road accidents in the winter gloom of the early evening rush hour but workers cannot optimise use of their private time.

Working hours are still largely determined by employers. Most public sector employers try to open when everyone else is open, in order to reduce demand on their services. Most private sector employers open at the same time as each other. This is why we have rush hours.

In terms of reducing stressful and unfulfilling activity in life, avoiding rush hour travel must be pretty near the top of effective strategies. It's one main reason why working from home is such a popular day dream. But, in reality, influenced by Time Management, people try to make their time on the Bus or the Tube "useful": read a book, answer emails.

I am not convinced. If the journey was shorter, I think people would enjoy the chance to day dream or simply relax. And the best place to read a book is on the sofa.
And on the sofa, reading the book does not need to be combined with any other activity. If it's not a sufficiently pleasurable activity in itself, then it is best avoided.

Time management is generally interpreted as maximising activity and minimising time committed to it.

There is a different approach which would concentrate simply on minimising time allocated to unpleasant and unrewarding activity. Don't like housework? Employ a cleaner!

Of course, that example shows that we are constrained in various ways - in this case, by whether or not we can afford a cleaner. But many of the constraints on our personal time management are imposed by the way public time is organised and managed for us.

I write this in a week when the Government has launched its scheme to make people regret living and working in London. It's called the Olympics and it's going to waste people's time big time.

_______________________

"The central fact of our existence is that time is the ultimate finite resource" Daniel Kahnemann, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Seven Deadly Sins

Go to "Seven Deadly Sins" on Wikipedia and you get a very interesting history of where the changeable list of Seven came from - imagine an ill-tempered committee of the not-so-great-and-good venting their spleen over the centuries: "We need to clamp down on these peasants. Forgetting their place nowadays! Full of sloth! Put that on the list! [Hyah, Hyah!] ... And another thing, they're at it all the time. No decency, no self-control, lusting after each other and laughing at us! Put that on the list! [ Hyah! Hyah!]"

Enough of that. I asked myself, What do I think of as Deadly Sins, sins which pitch people down the slippery slope towards perdition?

I think first of Sins against the Self.

I recoil from Self-Pity and Self-Neglect which show lack of Self-Respect or - in other words - Pride (one of the Deadlies). The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune will always wound us, but with self-respect, not so deeply. Lose your pride, and you have stopped saying Yes to life and its possibilities, including the possibility of doing good in this world. So Pride protects us from the sins of self-pity and self-neglect. It gives us dignity.

Then there are Sins against Others

The Church proposes Temperance and Chastity as the Virtues which protect us from the sins of Gluttony and Lust. But Christian temperance does not always take the benign form of eating your Five a Day. It turns into Meanness, which is a lack of generosity towards the world. And Chastity as well as having no obvious moral merit often turns into Prudery, which is the vice of disapproving of one's fellow human beings - something which in the Vatican can be a full-time job.

Meanness and Prudery are Sins from which Gluttony and Lust afford some protection: in the film Babette's Feast, it is the experience of gluttony which humanises the sectarians. In the life of Oskar Schindler, it is his Lust which ensures that his heart is not locked against his fellow human beings (something which the disapproving biography by David M Crowe is unable to comprehend).

It is often remarked that the Seven Deadlies do not include Cruelty (Wrath certainly does not encompass it). But Cruelty is the sin which most brutally disfigures human relationships. It is an exercise of power: of parents against their children; of the Church against heretics; of despots against their "people" - and it gets passed down the line and from generation to generation. In Ireland, the cruelty of the Church disfigured a whole society - and, oh, in what Self-Pity that Church now indulges when held to account.

The virtues which oppose themselves to Cruelty are kindness or benevolence or love.

It is also remarked that Dishonesty is not among the Seven Deadlies; maybe the Committees responsible for the List were fiddling their expenses.

But I also hesitate to include dishonesty on my own List. It's sometimes cruel (so it can be dealt with under that head) but more often it's merely tiresome. I don't want to go to the wall on it, but I am inclined to think Hypocrisy a greater Sin than dishonesty because it is what so often cements societies around things which, actually, no one believes in.

Faith schools can only exist in the UK because most teachers are willing to keep their mouths shut about what they believe (or more often, don't believe). The core ethos of a modern Faith School is one where the Governors know the Maths teacher is an atheist, and the Maths teacher knows he can keep his job if he keeps quiet about that fact. And the kids probably guess what's going on.

The virtue which protects us from hypocrisy in ourselves is Pride and from hypocrisy in others, Wrath. Oh, how those teachers deserve a tongue lashing!

I am not counting but I am sure you can continue the task of constructing Seven Deadlies appropriate for a world where human beings care for themselves and for each other.













________

Retail

In John Lanchester's recent novel Capital, a main part is played by a family running an Asian corner shop. It's a sympathetic portrayal.

Retail in the form of independent shop keeping can't be much fun. The chances of survival are not good for a new business and an established business never stops being hard work.

There is the rent, which in England is kept high by our leasehold laws and unwillingness to build. Then there are business rates, also high though the Council does not even collect your rubbish. (That's why in city like Brighton there is always refuse on the street - there are multiple private collecting services for "business waste"). Then there are insurances: public liability and employee liability. Then there is VAT. Then there is National Insurance. Then there are people who nick stuff. Then, occasionally but not rarely, there are people who point a knife and demand the contents of your till.

Who wants to be a small shop keeper?

Then there is the skill involved in successful retailing.

Most retail is about break of bulk: you buy by the hundred and sell one at a time. Get your calculations wrong and you are left with stuff past its sell by date.Only in the case of newspapers with a one day shelf life does the supplier take back the unsolds.

Then there are the customers, of whom you have to attract an awful lot since most of them are only going to buy a bottle of water or a carton of milk which have to be bar coded and till receipted.

Just imagine trying to make a living from that.

Then there is the pavement outside your shop which you have to keep clean because the Council doesn't and which often enough means vomit and dog shit.

If at the end of this you do look reasonably affluent, it's because you work sixty or eighty hours a week. Sometimes I just wonder what figure comes out if you convert a small shop keeper's annual pre-tax profit into a pre-tax hourly wage rate.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Quiet

There's nowt so queer as folk, a truth from which all of us, in relation to some aspect of our lives, can take comfort. Some can also take comfort from a whole academic field of Queer Theory - but despite having spent a year following the courses of someone who inspired it (Michel Foucault), I don't know enough to make it the topic for my letter Q.

In my work I drive long distances across Europe, sometimes several hundred miles in a day. Nowadays, I never listen to the car radio or put in a CD. I am happy to drive, to day dream and to think.

At home, I have a home cinema system but it is not tuned for TV reception and I don't have a TV licence (I have a letter from the authorities permitting me this queerness). The last time I saw a TV programme was in 2010 - in someone else's house, I watched one of the General Election debates between the UKs party leaders.

I have a cheap sound system and occasionally play CDs but I never listen to the radio - I don't even know if the system is tuned to any particular stations; I haven't investigated.

My landline telephone is switched to silent and an answerphone picks up any messages (most of them spam). During the day, my mobile phone is not switched to silent and I answer calls from numbers it recognises. But I usually send texts or emails to people rather than call them. My business is now largely carried on through emails.

I quite like the background noise of cars passing, people going about their business, roars going up from a pub when someone scores a goal. But I don't add very much to the noise. I never use my car horn, though that is not unusual in England.

I live a very quiet life, not metaphorically but literally, and so quiet that I reckon it a bit queer. And I don't fully understand it.

Not watching TV - even selectively, as of course everyone does - I officially regard as part of what Auguste Comte called "Mental Hygiene" which for him involved not reading books (or not too many of them). It keeps my head clear and, since I use the time saved to read books and newspapers, hopefully better informed about the world than I would be from watching TV.

As for not listening to the radio, that I cannot explain other than by saying that sooner or (rarely) later someone talking too much, too fast or some advertisement full of false enthusiasm will irritate me and sometimes beyond reason.

Text messages and emails are wonderful inventions. I was never much good on the 'phone (I didn't grow up with it)and now I find it quite intrusive. It always shocks me when I see people together in restaurants, even romantic couples, who will break off a conversation to answer their phone.

So you see that in my taste for Quiet, I'm a bit queer. In every other respect, of course, I'm as normal as the chap next door.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Profit

I am going to act naive and maybe end up somewhere as a result.

The word "Profit" gets applied to very different things.

I am self-employed with no employees. At the end of each tax year, my accountant calculates what he calls my "Assessable Profit". This figure is arrived at by taking my Income (derived mostly from retail sales, in my case), deducting my Expenses (purchase of stock, other expenses)and then further deducting Capital Allowances (expenses which are claimed against tax in instalments).

I don't pay myself a wage: instead of a wage, I have this "Assessable Profit". It's equivalent to a gross annual salary.

Now some economists would say that I am only a rational actor insofar as I try to maximise that Assessable Profit (or, at least, that figure when converted to an hourly gross wage). But, of course, most self-employed people are engaged in satisficing not maximising: they aim to end up with an annual figure which seems satisfactory compensation for the hours-cum-effort they have expended and allows them to pay their mortgages and all the rest.

"Profit" here could hardly be more benign.

Quite different are corporate profits - what's left after all expenses and all wages have been paid. It's what is available to distribute to owners (generally, shareholders) or to re-invest.

Nowadays, I suspect that very few people actually live off profits in the sense of "income from invested capital" except as beneficiaries of a pension scheme which holds invested capital. I don't think Marx had pensioners in mind as capitalist exploiters.

And as we have come to realise - really quite recently - the interesting (morally, politically significant) exploitation occurs in the division of the pre - profit wage bill. It is executive remuneration which drives down everything else: worker pay, shareholder profit and the amount available for re-investment. In many large companies, executives behave like Third World extractive elites.

In both cases, power is being used to rack up a rent. Profit is not the problem.

So in poor countries cursed with one valuable resource (diamonds, oil) extractive elites exercise power in two directions. They use coercion and repression to keep down the incomes of those who work in the one-resource industry. And they use their control over the state to set monopolistic terms of trade with those who wish to buy the one resource. (This has, by the way, very little to do with capitalism as Marx understood it but it is a very good method of getting very rich).

Likewise, the executive class considered as an extractive elite both seeks to keep down the wages of "ordinary" workers (through casualisation and so on) and seeks sole control over the terms on which it is paid, excluding as far as possible the exercise of shareholder power.

Though this is most obvious in the private sector, it can and does operate in the public sector where nowadays top civil servants and heads of publicly-owned industries have secured considerable control over what they pay themselves. Think of the BBC.

So, for the moment at least, maybe we should worry less about Profit (the profit motive, capitalist exploitation and all the rest) as a driver of inequality and injustice and more about rent extraction.

I suppose someone is going to tell me that's back to Henry George.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Ostentation


Like the British state, the French state knows how to do ostentation. President Hollande ceased to be "Mr Normal" the moment he assumed office - an office which surrounds him with men (only men)in splendid uniforms, mounted on splendid horses, helmets and swords polished to perfection. It's not really Republican ostentation, it's Imperial, like that so often on display in London. It's just that in France, the State is the Empire.

I began to think back to 1977 to the coronation of the Emperor Bokassa I, an event entirely managed by the French government in collaboration with its haute couture industry but at a cost to the dirt-poor Central African Republic in excess of its entire annual state budget.

Google the photographs and you will see how Europe colonised Africa in more than one way. The ostentation we flaunt in the faces of our own subjects returns in the farce and tragedy of Bokassa's delusions of grandeur. There is even an imitation of that Coronation coach.

Bokassa was just one of many tyrants and kleptocrats sustained by the French over decades after independence. He had uranium. So what if he looted his country, tortured and murdered his opponents and even personally clubbed to death school pupils? Their offence? Protesting the cost of their compulsory school uniforms - made by a single supplier, the factory owned by one of Bokassa's many wives.

Liberty? Equality? Fraternity? Not for Africa.

If we began to address what we did in Africa and have done there up until the present, and if we examined how our own ostentatious images of power have been incorporated into the rhetoric of local tyrants, then I cannot see how we could continue to spend our own money on coronation coaches or black horses or red uniforms.

And looking at the medals on the chests of a Bokassa or a Mugabe or a Gadaffi - how can Prince Charles still go on wearing his? Of course, there is the difference that he didn't award them to himself; they are the birthday badges which, over the years, his Mum has given him.

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

National Anthems

There are going to be a lot of them on the airwaves in the coming weeks and someone will surely organise an Olympic contest to pick a winner.

It won't be the United Kingdom; it doesn't have a National Anthem - loyal subjects call on God to make the Queen feel good and that's about it. If you don't believe in God or the Queen, you are a bit stuffed.

God has by now clearly heard better tunes: He has sent Her very few victories in her very long reign. The camera can cut to Team Argentina to illustrate successful invocation of the deity, but it can't cut anywhere else.

In the old days, when concert halls started the evening and cinemas ended with the National Anthem, I was one of those people who stayed seated. I recall one occasion when the concert-goer behind made valiant efforts to yank me to my feet. Another occasion was more interesting.

There used to be a cinema in Oxford Street which showed European films and was popular with students. They screened Ådalen 31 (Bo Widerberg, 1969), a powerful Swedish film about bad employers and good workers in the years before the social democratic party secured the hegemony which made Sweden a model for progressive politics (so much so, that I made Sweden the first foreign country I visited, in 1964).

The audience was clearly moved by the film, but no sooner ended than the Anthem struck up. The juxtaposition was jarring and, without thinking, I shouted some protest. To my surprise, it was taken up and afterwards people gathered round to talk. More usually, in ordinary cinemas, people simply walked out during the Anthem which is the real reason they gave up playing it. The Monarchy wasn't as popular then as it is this year.

Nowadays, I stand up for the Anthem, not to embarass those I am with. But in the sixties, we were all in it together.

When England throws off the yoke of the United Kingdom and declares itself a Republic, it will already have a flag and a football team. But it will need an Anthem.

An Anthem should reflect a nation's better self and aspirations; the words should be well-known and well-loved. Ideally, a football crowd should be able to turn in a half-decent performance.

That reduces the choice to two:

Jerusalem

Sir Hubert Parry set Blake's words to music in 1916 at the request of the Poet Laureate, Robert Bridges. It was designed as a contribution to the war effort. Parry soon had doubts about contributing to that senseless slaughter and may well have withdrawn the music but for the fact that Jerusalem was also quickly taken up by more progressive forces: the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies (the Suffragettes)adopted it and Parry promptly assigned them the copyright. The Labour Party also took it up. ( I am relying on the very detailed interesting Wikipedia entry "And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time" ).

So as a National Anthem Jerusalem would nicely incorporate England's conflicted political history. Its God is not the primitive deity of the National Anthem and there is nothing in it an atheist cannot live with.

Imagine

First released in 1971, but not as a single until 1975. John Lennon's words are very well known (the world over - though in America they have a version which replaces "Imagine no religion" with "Imagine one religion"). I think it is regarded with great fondness though it did not become a #1 Hit until after Lennon's death. The words do appeal to our better selves and aspirations. Whether a football crowd could sing a verse, I am not so sure. But they'd give it a try.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Macadamised



High Milton Cottages, near Sauchrie, South Ayrshire (Grid Reference NS 3013). The road is believed the first to have been Macadamised.
Copyright Mary and Angus Hogg and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

It's rained a lot recently here in the UK. Sidestepping the pavement puddles and driving along main roads sheeted with water, I remembered that civilisations in decline forget how to use - or cannot be bothered to use - the technologies which once made them great. Think of what happened to Britain when the Romans left.

In school, and quite young, we Did the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions. We learnt about road improvement and knew the names of Thomas Telford (1757-1834) and John Macadam (1756 - 1836), both Scotsmen.

I can still remember the diagrams, though I don't have the exercise books any more. The basic idea was something like this:



You built up the road with small stones and at the same time you cambered the road, so that water ran to the sides where it could be drained into ditches. Unlike the old mud roads, the Macadamised road would remain passable in the wettest weather.

In towns, water from cambered streets would drain towards gutters and from there channeled into drains. Pavements would be gently sloped so that water ran towards the gutters.

All this we have forgotten.

In towns, our roads and pavements are dug up endlessly by utility firms and councils. They employ the same firms: Bodger and Sons, Bodger and Daughters, Bodger and Bodger. None of them have heard of road cambering or water run off. Or if they have, they don't want to know. They want the money.

Not so many years ago, cumbersome council vehicles dropped great nozzles into street drains to suck out leaves and other debris and thus ensure that the drains were fit for purpose. Now we have privatised drains and no cumbersome vehicles. Drains are blocked: when it rains, the water may run towards the drains but there it simply overflows and spreads out into those great ponds of water which buses drive through.

On the main roads and motorways, large private companies extract from the Exchequer millions for maintenance. But Bodger and Bodger Plc has never heard of cambering or storm water drains or ditches and, if it has, it doesn't want to know. It wants to lay tarmac at however-many-million pounds a mile and move on.

This is a civilisation in decline. Remember that next time you hit a sheet of water laying across your motorway or as you dodge the puddles sitting on your high street pavement.

Further Reading:
Thomas Codrington, The Maintenance of Macadamised Roads. Second edition. E & F N Spon, London 1892.