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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 - - 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.