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Friday, 31 January 2014

Hating One's Neighbours - Some Thoughts on Tony Blair and "Religious Extremism"

In an article in a British Sunday newspaper (The Observer 26 January), former Prime Minister Tony Blair identifies conflicts fuelled by religious extremism as the Big Issue for the 21st century.

It's true that the willingness of some young men around the world to resort to terminal violence as their first line of response to things they dislike is scary, but if you can get past that gut feeling and fear, it seems that there is nothing new about the intensity of their hate or its typical focus.

People have always reserved their greatest hatred for those who are physically close but culturally different. Often enough, the hatred boils up or is channelled into lethal attacks to drive out or exterminate those who are different.

The rational basis or rationalisation is often enough that the Other will monopolise scarce resources - land, food, employment - or exploit those who perceive themselves threatened.

Over the centuries, European Jews whose involvement in commerce brought them physically close to populations who differed from them were subject to repeated pogroms which even, in at least one instance in Poland, continued after the second world war.

You would have thought that in America or Australia, there was enough land for everyone, but European settlers there could not tolerate the idea of sharing or living side by side with Red Indians or Aborigines and so exterminated them. (A manifestation of European civilisation which Hitler found inspirational for his own schemes).

It was almost inevitable that when the state of Israel was founded, the Zionists would drive the Arab population from their ancestral lands - a process which continues to this day. (Ironically, many of those Arabs have a better claim to be in the blood line of the Chosen People than the very mixed race European settlers who have driven them out).

In England, there has never really been organised violence against the Other but always a level of hostility which sometimes breaks out into low-level intimidation and unpleasantness. In the 19th century, Irish labourers were the hated Other; after World War Two, West Indian bus conductors and railway porters; this week, it is Bulgarians and Romanians. Resentment is articulated in claims that They take Our jobs and homes, though it is never explained why we are so bad at holding onto our jobs and homes when we have all the advantages of language and familiarity with the system.

There are other kinds of proximity-based hatred. Put orphans into close proximity with Catholic nuns and they don't stand a chance. Put delinquent boys into close proximity with Catholic monks and you get institutions where everyday life is a system of generalised abuse and violence.

Last but by no means least, there is the hatred of the Other sex which can reach the same kind of murderous intensity as other hatreds. In some places, women go about their lives on edge, as if at any moment a pogrom may break out around them and directed at them with acid attacks, rape and murder as the weapons

Anyone who suggests that it's a better idea to love your neighbour is taking on a tough assignment. Historically, the evidence is that it may well prove terminal.

Tony Blair doesn't urge us to love our neighbours, simply to tolerate them. History suggests that is not something which comes easily, and certainly not to his American friends. They can barely tolerate Cuba.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Theft, Loot and the Passage of Time

In societies which recognise private ownership and legally uphold it, theft is widespread but sometimes punished. Non-perishable goods which have been stolen are sometimes returned to their rightful owners - though often enough they pass into untroubled circulation, handed down in families or sold at auctions.

When such societies go to war with each other, as they do or did, different rules apply. The private possessions of enemy civilians are almost always regarded as legitimate objects of requisition or expropriation. Soldiers are traditionally rewarded for fighting successfully by being given permission to loot. (Sometimes they are also given permission to rape).

It doesn't much matter if your side wins or loses, the durable loot - stuff which hasn't been eaten or drunk - remains yours and can pass into untroubled circulation, handed down in families or sold at auctions. Even large and valuable objects are subject to this law of war.

When the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, they expropriated the expropriators and filled vast warehouses with their Stuff. Through the 1920s and 1930s, they sold it off to raise foreign currency and had no trouble doing so - even objects with provenance which linked them to their original owners could be sold. The USA - founded on the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of property - was the best market for Bolshevik loot.

In World War Two, German Armies were looters on a grand scale, as were the civilian administrations established in occupied territories. When the railways weren't shipping Jews to the death camps, they were shipping Loot back to the Fatherland. Germany's top leaders expected to receive Loot by the train load, the Tribute of conquered lands.

At the end of the War, the Russian Armies entered Germany as invaders, looting whole factories, dismantling them and shipping them back to the Soviet Union. In comparison, looting by American, British and French forces probably did not rise much above souvenir hunting. But interesting souvenirs.

Despite well-publicised instances of the return of looted goods to the descendants of their rightful owners or to the public museums from which they were taken, most of the Loot of World War Two is being handed down in families and sold at auctions.

Going back in time, the same is true for the Trophies which British soldiers brought back from their many Imperial forays - these often stolen goods are now treasured heirlooms, reminding families of great great grandfather's adventures.

Wars and revolutions destroy lives and property. They also redistribute - across vast distances - goods and chattels, down to the smallest trinkets.

I'm a stamp dealer and I spend some of my time going through other dealers' boxes at stamp fairs and through cartons of stuff offered at auction. I sometimes wonder just how much of it has a clean history, an uninterrupted passage from one legitimate owner to the next.

The truth is that an unknown percentage of this stuff doesn't have a clean bill of ownership health. And, more interestingly, I am not sure there are very many people who think that it matters very much. It is as if the passage of time, at least for small items, washes things clean. After all, if you had to prove that you got it from Z who got it from Y who got it from X who .... then many businesses, honestly conducted and tax-paying, would simply grind to a halt.

Sometimes even those who have had things stolen lose interest in retrieving them. I recall a well-known philatelic Expert telling me of someone reporting to him the theft of a valuable item and providing the Expert with a photograph. Ten years later or thereabouts, the item duly appeared on the Expert's desk with a request for a certificate of genuineness. The Expert contacted the original owner and asked him if he wanted to take action. "Oh, I can't be bothered" he replied.


Added 25 July 2018: See now the chapter, "Crimes and Punishments" in my book The Best I Can Do (degree zero 2016), freely available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other booksellers

Friday, 17 January 2014

Campaign for Real Cotton - or Do You Want Biocidal Ions in Your Underpants?

Cotton, like wool, is a great product. Versatile, practical, attractive, hygienic....

For decades it has been under threat from synthetic competitors, once called Brinylon and now rebranded as "polyamides". Though they hesitate to offer 100% synthetics, the main retailers try to add as much synthetic material wherever they can.

They used to leave alone underwear and socks since Doctors will tell you to avoid synthetics next to your skin - they will make worse any tendency you have to skin problems and they will smell.

But new "Technologies" have emboldened the big stores to add synthetic content even to socks and underwear. So Marks and Spencer will sell you socks containing a high proportion of synthetics - but they will then tell you that the socks are treated with some Fresh Feet ™ technology ("Silver Technology") to stop your feet smelling.

Worse, they have now decided to apply these new "Technologies" even to the remaining 100% cotton products. Want 100% cotton handkerchieves? Sorry, you can only have them  treated with germicides or bacteriocides or spermicides... (I forget the exact wording).

Want 100% cotton underpants? Sorry, you have to have them in the new Stay Fresh™ form, "Sanitised" and containing "Biocidal Ions". The words are on the packaging.  I haven't made them up.

Now, I thought you sanitised underpants by putting them in the washing machine. How come they need sanitising even before you wear them?

I Googled "Biocidal Ions" and it seems that all the Patents are recent and there are only 1,100 results in total. I Googled ' "Biocidal Ions" + Cotton' and to my amazement there were only 7 results.

I am no scientist. It seems that these technologies involve putting fabrics through water containing some mixture of copper / zinc / silver ions. It almost sounds as if you clean up the product - sanitise it - before you sell it. Does that mean that these new "Technologies" are ways of compensating for dirty raw cotton or dirty factories turning the cotton into underpants?

But the impression given is that the "sanitising" is of your own body fluids and odours. If that's the case, I'd like to see more than seven Google results before I voted to have "biocidal ions" in contact with my genitals.

Maybe these new Technologies are innocuous or even beneficial, but no one is explaining or justifying their introduction. We need a Campaign for Real Cotton, products which may be bleached or dyed, but which are 100% cotton without modification by new "Technologies" of very recent vintage and which, as far as I can see, have so far been very little discussed in the public domain.

Time now to check out The White Company...

Reforming "Pensioner Perks" - take away from the over 60s and give to the over 80s

In the United Kingdom, the over 60s are a crucial voting constituency and politicians have consistently bribed them - this is especially true of the Labour Party which has courted this generally Conservative constituency with handouts.

At 60 in the UK, and regardless of employment status or income, you currently qualify for a Pass which allows you free bus travel, free prescriptions for medicines, and a tax-free cash handout (£200 for a single person) which is put into your bank account just before Christmas. It's called a "Winter Fuel Payment" but this is bogus - you can claim this benefit even if you are an ex-patriate living on the Costa del Sol.

Though women could for most of the period since 1945 retire at 60 and claim their state pension, men couldn't.The retirement age for men was fixed at 65 - a piece of extraordinary sex discrimination which went unchallenged for decades. The retirement age for women will now rise by stages to reach 65 in 2018, so sex equality is still a little way off [January 18: This paragraph clarified and corrected to take account of the first Comment published below]

The Benefits handed out at 60 are not really "Pensioner Perks". They are not tied to being a pensioner in any way, though they used the female age of retirement as a fig leaf to make it seem that they were connected to retirement.

At sixty, many of the beneficiaries of these handouts have disposable incomes which are higher than they have ever experienced: their mortgages are paid off, their children have grown up and, if they are in work, then they are at the top of the salary scale. They simply don't need the handouts politicians have shoveled towards them.

Worse, because they are untaxed they are actually regressive benefits. A person paying 40% marginal tax would lose £80 if the £200 Christmas handout was taxed; a person on lower income and paying tax at a marginal rate of 20% would lose only £40. Put another way, a 40% taxpayer would have to earn £333 to generate £200 net; a 20% taxpayer would have to earn just £250.

Worse still, these so-called Benefits have some negative consequences even for their beneficiaries. The Royal College of Pharmacists has repeatedly drawn attention to the over-prescribing of medicines to the over 60s who binge on free pills in the same way as some of them binge on free bus rides.

But if you then turn to the over 80s or even the over 70s, you find a group in which many are struggling with low incomes - no longer earning and their savings used up - unable to afford appropriate care or equipment to make their lives more tolerable.

So though it is politically difficult to remove "Pensioner Perks" from a group which is often rather unpleasantly grasping, a very strong case could be made for switching expenditure from regressive untaxed benefits for the over 60s  to taxed increases in the state pension for the over 80s or over 70s. Since the state pension is taxed, those with existing higher incomes who do not need the increases would simply pay more in tax than those who do need them.

There would be some additional advantages in making this switch. The so-called "Pensioner Perks" are offensive in a number of ways. For example, the Bus Pass is paternalistic insofar as it shepherds older people to the form of transport the politicians think appropriate for them. But an elderly person might prefer one taxi ride a week for a supermarket shop to five bus rides into town. The present system does not recognise such a preference. Worse, the Bus Pass confronts other bus users - generally young people on low incomes - with the daily spectacle of often well-dressed individuals hopping on board and flashing a Pass which exempts them from paying for something they most definitely should pay for.

So that's my proposal: cost all these Pensioner Perks and transfer the total budget to enhancing the state pension income of people who are older and, in general, more in need.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Why Britain Cannot Build More and Cheaper Houses

Britain has a long-term housing problem. Housing - whether to buy or to rent - is expensive. Paying for it takes a high percentage of people's incomes. And much of the housing stock is of poor quality - but people have to live in sub-standard housing because there is nothing else.

The situation cannot be improved.

Suppose a reforming government simplified the planning system and made more land available; suppose it capped the price at which land could be sold for building; suppose it made life easy for house-building companies; suppose it succeeded in generating a supply of affordable, good quality homes; suppose there were enough homes to give people a real choice.

It would be a disaster.

Existing home owners have, for the most part, bought their homes on mortgages with a high ratio of borrowing to value of their house. Often they have borrowed 90% or 95% of the value of their house.

If house prices fall, then they fall into what is called the Negative Equity Trap - they can't afford to move house because they will not be able to pay off the money they have borrowed.

The Banks are also in trouble. Their loans are secured on houses. If the value of the houses falls, then their loans become more risky. If a borrower stops repaying their mortgage, then though the bank can seize the house and sell it - well, it won't get its money back.

So existing house owners will never vote for a party which says it is going to increase the supply of housing and make it cheaper. Landowners won't vote for such a party either. Bankers won't vote for it.

The same situation applies in the rented housing sector. Most landlords have borrowed against the value of their houses in order to buy them and then rent them out. They cannot afford to see rents fall because then they will not be able to repay their loans. And if house prices fall, then the value of the houses they own also falls. So no way are they going to vote for a reforming government. Nor are the people who lent them money.

Ah, but what about those who need housing badly, who don't already own a house or who are forced to rent sub-standard properties?

Many of these people don't vote. They don't believe politicians. If a party comes along and says it will build more houses, make them cheaper, make them better quality - well,  they just won't believe it.

Do not expect Britain's Housing Problem to go away any time soon. The Haves will always outvote the Have Nots, even though there are quite a lot of Have Nots and even though many of the Haves are living in truly awful cold, damp, cramped, houses.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Tesco Finest Chocolate - If It Ain't Broke, Fix It

No one gets promoted for saying, "Hey, I've got an Idea, Let's leave things as they are!" You get promoted for innovating. If the innovation makes the world better, all well and good. If it doesn't, who will notice?

A few years ago, Tesco introduced a range of 100 gram Finest chocolate bars. They were very reasonably priced - around £1 each - and they were good. One of them quickly won a Prize. That was the Peruvian milk chocolate with a high cocoa content - 39% if I recall correctly. The chocolate was loose textured and buttery and full of flavour and aroma. I used to buy this variety and give it as small presents.

Then things changed. Someone in packaging - I guess - noticed that the chunky, loose-textured bars of the new range took up more space than they needed to. So production was switched to machines (in Italy) which steamroller the chocolate in to tight-packed and thinner bars - just like some well-known Swiss chocolate brands. Unfortunately, the steamroller version simply lacks the flavour of the open-textured original.

Tesco keeps playing around with this chocolate. The packaging has gone through a couple of redesigns and when I bought a bar today I noticed the cocoa content is up to 43%. But what we have now is an average OK kind of chocolate, not the prize-winning Wow! chocolate we had a few years ago. They've fixed that problem and I guess someone got promoted for it. I will have to look elsewhere for my great chocolate experiences.