Thursday, 20 October 2011

Let's not have a referendum

I suppose it should be mildly encouraging that the House of Commons is to debate and vote on whether there should be a referendum concerning the UK's membership of the European Union. The BBC informs me (here) that what will be debated is whether a referendum should be held giving the great British public three choices: (i) remaining in the EU, (ii) withdrawing from the EU and (iii) staying in but renegotiating the terms "in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation".

My initial reaction was to wonder at the absurdity of offering three options. Nothing seems to be said about the proportion of votes required for any single option to be deemed the winner. Will it be more than one third or more than half? If the former it will lack legitimacy, if the latter it will set a very high hurdle for each option. 40% for staying in, 30% for withdrawal and 30% for renegotiation could be contrued as 70% for staying in but trying to change the unchangeable or as 60% for changing the status quo without any obligation on government to do anything about it. Either way it is completely unsatisfactory.

My second reaction was to ask whether there is any difference between the first and third options and, indeed, between the second and third options.

Staying in does not prevent renegotiation of the terms of membership, so option (iii) (if acted on by the government) merely adds a requirement to enter negotiations. What it cannot do is dictate the outcome of those negotiations because, by definition, negotiations only lead to a change if all parties to the discussion agree on a specific outcome. As I understand it an outcome in favour of option (iii) would not require the government to do anything, although it would be bad politics for them not to make at least a token gesture of trying to change the terms of EU membership. And even if they were constitutionally obliged to negotiate that would not guarantee any particular result.

Leaving the EU cannot take place in a vacuum. The UK has numerous trade treaties with countries around the globe, absent such treaties practical business cannot be conducted and just those sorts of treaties will be required if we are to deal in a sensible manner with the remaining EU nations. Withdrawal from the EU necessarily requires new treaties to be negotiated with the new, slightly smaller, EU because country-by-country treaties with EU members are not an option - the EU as a conglomerate has control over such matters. In other words, withdrawal will require negotiation "in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation" - so what of option (iii)?

The terms proposed for a referendum look like a hopeless and confused committee-created fudge. A referendum on the terms proposed is likely to achieve only one thing, namely to kick the issue into the long grass for the foreseeable future. Only a straight in/out question is appropriate.

Friday, 30 September 2011

80mph? Oh no, the planet is at risk.

The government has suggested that the national maximum speed limit might be increased from 70 mph to 80 mph in two years' time, in the interim they propose a consultation exercise. Whether the outcome will be a change in the maximum permissible speed of motorcars on our roads is pretty much irrelevant to me. I have held an unblemished driving licence for decades and will not knowingly exceed a speed limit because I want it to remain unblemished. Consider me a boring prig if you will, but I prefer to live within the law whether or not I agree with it.

Today on my way back from a hack around the golf course I heard an item on this issue on BBC Radio 5 (actually not so much of a hack, I went round in 78 gross on a par 72 course, something went wrong with my usual ineffectual sporting technique - I only throw this in because I'm very proud of it and will almost certainly never do it again).

A number of statements issued by people and organisations involved in the motoring business were read and a few people were interviewed, including a former racing driver and the current Secretary of State for Transport. Some supported the proposal, some opposed it and some said it was necessary to investigate the likely consequences before changing the law. Fair enough.

What was not fair enough was that almost all contributors, including the Secretary of State, said a relevant consideration was the effect of an increase in the maximum lawful speed of motor cars on British roads on the amount of carbon dioxide exuded into the atmosphere.

It really is quite flabbergasting that the anti-carbon dioxide religion has taken hold to such an extent that a minor change in the law of England, Wales and (I believe) Northern Ireland should be thought to have a potential impact on emissions of CO2 that can be of relevance to the well-being of our planet and/or human life on our planet.

The UK (including Scotland which is in charge of speed limits through its own so-called Parliament and is unaffected by the proposed change) produces less than 2% of all carbon dioxide spewed forth by human activity. Traffic on roads carrying a speed limit lower than 70 mph will not be affected by the proposal and not all those travelling on roads to which the national speed limit applies will drive faster and spew more CO2 as a result of the maximum permissible speed being 80 rather than 70.

Against that background it is obvious beyond doubt that any additional CO2 coming from those cars that will be driven at higher speeds because of the proposed change will be such a small amount that it can make no difference to anything. It will be a small percentage (if, indeed it even reaches 1%) of the less than 2% of world emissions coming from the UK.

You can close down all human activity in the UK and the result will not have any measurable effect on the climate. Even if we accept the very direst predictions of those who claim additional human-produced carbon dioxide will cause great changes to the climate and that those changes will be detrimental to human existence, the removal of the 2% currently produced by the UK cannot affect matters to a measurable degree because other countries (especially China and India) are increasing their emissions by far more every year.

To take a proposal that might increase the UK's emissions by a tiny amount and seek to include that effect as a consideration that should affect the decision to accept or reject the proposal is, frankly, moronic.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

An Immigration Fraud

Immigration is a curious issue in British politics. Twenty and more years ago it was a core issue about which senior politicians would debate vigorously on national television and gain headlines in newspapers. Today there is the occasional soundbite but nothing more than that. All parties say they will be strict on abuses of the system but put forward nothing other than generalisations about how they will do it. When the party in power changes, nothing of any real substance ever seems to change.

In one important respect there is nothing any UK government can do because citizens of member States of the European Union have an almost unfettered right to come to this country. In another important respect there is nothing they should do because genuine refugees from the grimmer areas of human habitation must always be given a safe haven.

The point of today's waffle is something called the Ankara Agreement (for a summary of the parts that matter for present purposes, see here). One provision of the agreement allows Turks to apply for permission to enter and work in the UK if they intend to establish a business and show they have the financial means to do so. It is important to understand that an applicant who meets the criteria will be given the right to come and work here, there is no residual discretion to refuse an application that ticks all the boxes. What is required of an applicant is the intention to set-up a business and the money necessary to do so. The whole thing is about allowing in entrepreneurs, joining an existing business or working for a new business set-up by someone else is outside the Agreement. One might think very few people would qualify.

A whole industry has grown up around this aspect of the Ankara Agreement. There are firms of so-called immigration consultants who formulate applications for anyone who will pay them a fee.

These firms have template business plans they print-out with little or no amendment for scores of applicants. It goes without saying that the applicants are almost exclusively young men. One business plan that has been doing the rounds is the establishment of a bicycle taxi service in the West End of London. This was devised by one of the consultancy firms and has formed the basis of applications for permission to stay in the UK by dozens of men who came initially on student visas. It should be no surprise to anyone with a smidgen of common sense that most of them were not genuine students at all, they were the nephews (or sons of friends) of Turkish people already settled here and came to be part of their established businesses. They signed on as students at a language college of greater or lesser repute and worked in the uncle's (or father's friend's) restaurant or shop and then wanted to find a way to stay here when the period of their student visa was due to expire. From the beginning they came here to work and establish a life rather than to study, the student visa was simply a means to an end.

The Ankara Agreement is also treated as a means to an end. Recently I met a friend of a friend who used the bogus bicycle taxi business plan and was refused permission to stay because the judge saw through the scam. The applicant himself was disappointed but not surprised, he knew his intention was to continue working in his uncle's restaurant in the midlands and that he would rather smear his scrotum with toothpaste than operate a bicycle taxi. He knew the application was a scam, took his chance and lost.

I know others who have been given leave to live and work here under the Ankara Agreement despite having no intention at all to set-up their own business. Some just want to live a western life rather than a repressive Islamic life, others simply want to avoid national service in the Turkish army, most want both.

When discussing this topic with local Turks it is obvious that there is no desire to harm the UK behind the fraudulent applications that are made. There is no intention to scrounge benefits or to engage in criminal activity, the intention is simply to come here, work hard and make a life in the UK rather than in Turkey. A few days ago the excellent Mr Raedwald wrote about the Turks (here), his piece encouraged me to write on the subject because his positive view of Turks is the same as mine.

In the normal run of things I would be inclined to denounce systematic fraud of the type behind the hundreds of bogus applications made under the Ankara Agreement each year. I find it hard to denounce people who come here under student visas to see whether life here will suit them and, when they decide it will, want to find a way to remain so that they can earn an honest living. Of course there is a conflict between the honest lives they want to lead and the dishonest means they use to secure a right to remain here. It could be said that they do not want to lead honest lives at all because the lies told in their applications show them to be seriously dishonest. I understand that argument entirely and part of me agrees with it, the other part of me asks why people who want to work for a living should not be allowed to do so. Although their applications are fundamentally fraudulent they are not intended to harm anyone and, as far as I can tell, they do not harm anyone.

Until a few weeks ago I had never heard of the Ankara Agreement. Since then I have been talking to a number of local Turks I have known for years, what they told me about the way the Ankara Agreement has been used for decades accorded exactly with the way it was used by people whose applications were recently allowed or refused and who allowed me to look at the paperwork. Some of it was quite astonishing, particularly the successful application of one man who applied on the basis he was planning to start a website design business when he has worked as a waiter in a Turkish restaurant since he came here two years ago and still does the same job today. He just wanted to stay here and continue his life here, the alternative was at least a year in the army followed by starting from scratch. He was lucky, his bogus application succeeded. Frankly, this country is better for having him here because he is good at what he does and benefits the business that pays him. It sould surprise no one that a Turkish restaurant keeps its customers happier by having good Turkish waiters rather than employing Wayne or Jermaine, why should there be any obstruction to a good Turkish waiter living here so that he can provide that service?

The Ankara Agreement induces fraudulent applications because it establishes an avenue for people from one culture to live a new life in a more appealing culture. Indeed, so appealing is the new culture that a whole business has developed around finding ways to use the opportunity provided by the Agreement. It is a massive fraud.

A better course would be to allow everyone in provided they pay their way - no benefits, no right to housing, no hand-outs. Earn your way or go home. The young Turks wouldn't be going home in a hurry.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Tobacco companies and open goals

Eid Mubarak.

That is the traditional greeting given at the end of Ramadan, despite having lived in an area with a substantial Turkish population for more years than I have lived anywhere else I only learned that this week. Saying it elicits the same smiley response as Merry Christmas in the middle weeks of December. Now that Ramadan is over I no longer have to abide by the dietary strictures I imposed upon myself a month ago, so tofu and cauliflower need be avoided only on the ground of their venal characteristics and not for any other reason.

Talking of venal characteristics, on Thursday I made the mistake of turning on the radio on my way to golf and was assaulted by an absurd anti-smoking zealot spouting forth on the Victoria Darbyshire show on BBC Radio 5. His name was Professor Gerard Hastings. The good Mr Puddlecote knows more about him than I do and has posted (here) on the very subject that lies behind today's missive.

I can summarise the background quickly. Professor Hastings leads a department at the University of Sterling (an establishment with a fine reputation he is doing his best to destroy). That department is funded by taxpayers and has the remit to identify every possible fact or inference that can possibly be used to argue against the consumption of tobacco products. One of his latest wheezes was a survey of teenagers with the view to ascertaining their opinions of smoking tobacco and the factors that influenced them or might influence them into taking up that particular hobby. The survey, as I understand it, comprised asking a series of questions and recording the answers.

If that is all that had been done, one might ask why it was done, but of course it is not all that was done. Once the answers were received they were "interpreted" by Professor Hastings and his merry men and conclusions were drawn. Conclusions which he is proud to contribute to public debate on the issue of what, if anything, government should add to its current panoply of anti-smoking legislation and regulation. I put it in those terms very deliberately because there is no possibility at all of Professor Hastings reaching any conclusion suggesting that anti-smoking laws or regulations should be relaxed in any way. He is paid specifically to find fault, something he is very happy to do and is perfectly entitled to do provided he does so honestly and is prepared to justify his position. His interview on the radio suggested that one result of his so-called research supported the argument for plain packaging for cigarettes - I know not what other contentions it contained but this is the one he pressed to Miss Darbyshire.

A tobacco company, which uses the trading name Philip Morris, asked for details of the facts behind the conclusions/inferences drawn by Professor Hastings and his team. The request was, of course, made to the University not to the Professor himself so I cannot ascribe the patently unlawful refusal to give any information to him, nonetheless he was keen to associate himself with it on national radio.

On this occasion the BBC also allowed time for Philip Morris to give its side of the story, and it is this that is the substance of my ramblings. A woman, whose name I cannot recall, answered the more absurd points put forward by the Professor. For example, he said the survey was conducted on the basis that the answers would be strictly confidential and that this means the answers could not be disclosed. Being a man with a fine title but no common sense, he failed to realise just how stupid a point he was making. If the answers could not be disclosed he could not publish any conclusions drawn from them because, by doing so, he was disclosing the answers. That might not be quite as stupid as his argument that his University should not have to disclose the findings of fact on which his "research" was based because it is just a university yet Philip Morris employs tens of thousands of people around the globe. Quite what that has to do with the Freedom of Information Act is beyond me. Were I a professor maybe I would understand, as things are it sounds like illogical nonsense.

Now, back to the Philip Morris woman. When asked to justify her company's request for the data behind Professor Hastings' tendentious conclusions she warbled on about a need to know "the basis of the research". This was Radio 5 in the morning. The audience could not reasonably be expected to know ins-and-outs of the way anti-tobacco "research" operates or, indeed, of how proper scientific research operates, still less can they be expected to know the heavily-nuanced phrase "the basis of the research". The good Professor provided her with the killer point but she did not grasp it and undermine his credibility as she should.

Professor Hastings wants all employees of Philip Morris to lose their jobs, he wants the company closed, he wants its business to cease to exist. He said as much when Miss Darbyshire prompted him to do so.

The Philip Morris lady's best point was to assert that her company's business is lawful, employs tens of thousands of people (some thing the Professor seems to consider an evil), contributes vast quantities of tax to the Treasury and is entitled to protect its business against unfounded attacks. So, if it is attacked, it is entitled to ask whether the attack is well-founded or not. The purpose of the request for disclosure of the data behind Professor Hastings' conclusions can only be to see whether it supports the conclusions he asserts. If it does, it does; if it doesn't it doesn't. No one can know unless they are able to see the data and analyse it for themselves. She didn't get within spitting distance of making this obvious and decisive point. It is a point that knocks all of Professor Hastings' smug self-justification into a cocked-hat.

Professor Hastings "research" led to the assertion of conclusions designed to damage Philip Morris's lawful business and put all its employees out of work. Given that this might be the result of his conclusions being adopted in legislation, Philip Morris is entitled to ask whether his conclusions are sound. That can only be known by seeing the factual evidence from which he drew inferences. He can assert until the trump of doom that his conclusions are well-founded but no sensible person should be expected to accept that merely on the basis of his assertion. Unless the raw material from which he draws inferences is disclosed, he is asking for Philip Morris's business to be damaged purely because of his subjective interpretation of material no one else can examine.

Were we lucky enough to have independent-minded people of substance in Parliament, his conclusions could be challenged there. Instead we have far too many MPs who are constantly asking whether what they do will damage their hopes of re-election or advancement within their party. Going against current accepted wisdom can damage both, so they chicken out regardless of their personal views.

I do not know whether the Freedom of Information Act allows Philip Morris access to the anonymised answers given to Professor Hastings and his team (and Mr Puddlecote is wrong in suggesting that the Scottish Information Commissioner ruled that it has such a right, he ruled that the University must either disclose the information or give a good reason under the Act why it should not do so). Whether the Act does or does not allow access to the information deflects attention from the real issue. The real issue is whether a lawful business should be damaged because someone - in this case Professor Hastings - asserts that information he refuses to disclose supports the doing of harm to that business.

In the real world occupied by fair-minded people, substantiated reasons are required before government harms a lawful business. Fairness requires businesses to be able to ask why government proposes to do them harm. To rely on nothing more than the word of a fanatical academic whose salary and department are dependent on him giving the answers government wants to hear is to replace fairness with random bigotry.

It really is time the tobacco companies fought back and pointed out that a lot of people, something over one-fifth of the adult population of this country, choose to consume tobacco products and pay blistering amounts of tax for the privilege. Narrow-minded, bullying bigots might try to stop them by producing skewed analyses of data that is statistically insignificant in any event. Professor Hastings could fall into this category, he certainly doesn't approach the subject with an open mind as he admitted freely to the dozens of people listening to his irrational rantings on Thursday morning.

People like him are an open goal for any tobacco company with guts. Maybe the prevailing narrative is that smoking is an unmitigated evil with nothing in its favour, it certainly seems to be so from my perspective here at FatBigot Towers. When a prevailing narrative is based on a fundamental flaw, it takes someone with guts to stand up and say "hold on a minute, is that right?". It is an Emperor's new clothes scenario. Tobacco companies can afford guts and they can afford to face-down those who seek to attack their lawful business by publishing conclusions that are unsound. I know not whether Professor Hastings' conclusions are unsound, what I do know is that he cannot be trusted to be objective.

We cannot expect poor quality MPs to investigate whether his conclusions are correct, and nor should we. He is attacking lawful businesses who should fight their own corner. The first step in doing so is to put forward spokespeople on national broadcasts who avoid quasi-scientific jargon and get to the point.

This is an issue on which there is a chance of common sense replacing bigoted dogma. If the tobacco companies cannot grasp the lifeline provided by the truth we might well be destined to a future of having to accept falsehoods because they are "officially" decreed to be the truth.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Nationalise money - problem solved

I pity the governments of Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain (the PIIGS). They are doing their best to keep the wolf from the door but at every turn private investors pose impertinent questions and scupper their initiatives.

The truth is really very simple (what follows is a distillation of many research papers helpfully collected together - here - by a fellow blogger).

Governments print money. If they run short, perhaps because of the additional overtime paid to equality and diversity SWAT teams whenever a duskily hewed homosexualite has been refused promotion, all they need do is print another few million and the problem is solved. Or, to be exact, it would be solved if it weren't for those pesky private sector investors complaining that the additional tenners swishing through the system dilute the value of their cash reserves. And why would the problem be solved? Why does the printing of more ten pound notes not cause problems to anyone other than conspiratorial facist investors? For the answer to that question we need a short lesson in very modern economic history.

You see, it's Gordon Brown. He understood and we should all learn at his feet. More government spending means more economic activity. More economic activity is good, therefore more government spending is good. Got a town that's looking a bit crummy? Simple. Print 20 million tenners and spend them in that town building skate parks, healthy eating clinics and climate awareness centres, then print another 20 million to pay salaries. A crummy town? Not any more it isn't. It has skate parks, healthy eating clinics and climate awareness centres, it has a thousand people on good salaries manning these essential front-line public services. Misery has turned to universal joy and happiness. Crummytown is renamed Brownsville and all is right with the world. We know all this to be true because this was the basis of the economic miracle forged by Gordon Brown in his decade in the Treasury.

Only one group ever argued against Mr Brown as he stood triumphant before the World. That group was people and companies who forced Mr Brown to borrow money from them rather than just continually print more on the old hand platen that has been in the back bedroom at 11 Downing Street since 1805 (it proved a little inconvenient while the Blair family lived at Number 11 but Brown had a key and he was delighted to find the printing press was in the boys' bedroom).

One might think he should have just printed more, however that was fraught with political difficulties. If Gordon Brown is one thing, he is a man of the big tent. Not for him the marginalising or exclusion of any group, least of all those who might complain that he was acting out of small-minded, party-political spite. He simply had to keep the international financiers happy, to do otherwise would strike at the essential core of inclusive humanity that defines his moral compass. Much though he hated to do so, he knew his duty - that duty was to borrow hundreds of billions on the money markets in order to prove his fair-mindedness. It wasn't a problem because he only needed to spend a few more hours with the plates and ink in the back bedroom, a task that could be undertaken at any time once the usurous financiers had been repaid.

To complete this short history I must refer to what some have called "Brown's Bunker". The theory goes that Gordon Brown surrounded himself with a small group of yes-men, working out of one room at Number 10, insulated from and antipathetic to any voices of disagreement. Papers recently disclosed by an impeccable source prove beyond doubt that the only bunker in Downing Street during the Brown years was that specially created to house the enormous printing presses and stocks of "paper" required for Gordon to stimulate the economy after the wicked international bankers had made such a mess of their businesses they had to be bailed-out.

What cannot be ignored is that Gordon Brown's economic miracle would have continued unabated, and he would now be President for Life, were it not for the nasty private sector pretending its money was as pure as that produced in Downing Street. He was a victim of his own fairness and honesty because he could not bear the thought of a single banker's child losing their pony or being deprived of lacrosse coaching. In the circumstances of the time he was, of course, absolutely right, as he remains on every topic to this day. Nonetheless, his fairness created a bit of a pickle - a pickle for which he is not in any way to blame, we know this because he tells us so every time he is paid many thousands of pounds to give a speech.

It will be a matter of great regret until my dying day that the general election of 2010 came just before Gordon Brown had the chance to put into effect the final piece of his masterly jigsaw. Having, he thought, proved that all economic ills are caused by private sector businesses, the time was ripe for nationalisation of the funds held by these wicked shysters. No need for printing presses, a simple CHAPS transfer to HM Treasury would do the trick. There would no longer be any private sector investors involved in the UK economy, everything would be under the benevolent hand of the greatest economist the World has ever known - the man who knew that every hitch could be overcome by creating more bank notes.

All across the Eurozone we now see the greatness of his wisdom. Why is Greece in a mess? It's simple, private financiers are demanding repayment of their investments with interest. What an utterly absurd state of affairs it is. All Greece need do is nationalise the money it has been lent and its problems will be over. It will owe nothing. The slate will be wiped clean. What's more, it could then turn on the printing presses and boost its economy just as Gordon Brown did to the UK economy from 2003-7. So too for the rest of the PIIGS. They are foreigners so they would face no moral impediment as Mr Brown had with the bankers.

A country's credit rating cannot be downgraded if it never borrows, even more so if there are no credit rating agencies and there would not be once the vital step to economic harmony and perpetual glee was put in place. Mr Brown understood this. All you need do is nationalise all money and the problems not just of the PIIGS but also of every nation would disappear at a stroke.

Friday, 29 July 2011

A pincer movement of sheer lunacy - Part II

In Part I (here) I bemoaned the absurd overreaction by the professionally smug to the non-news that newspapers buy information obtained by illegal phone tapping. A week has now passed since a Parliamentary committee manned by incompetent cross-examiners conducted a kangaroo court trial of three people connected to a particular newspaper and failed to pin a tail anywhere near the donkey's anus. The only public outcry of which I am aware concerns the distasteful bugging (tapping, hacking, call it what you will) of telephonic communications involving the families of deceased people. Reprehensible though I consider such activity to be, there is no evidence that disclosure of any improperly obtained material has caused inconvenience, embarrassment or upset to any family members. In short the whole thing is a bit of a non-issue over which politicians - sniffing the chance to pass laws preventing their own sordid secrets being exposed - have whipped themselves into an unnecessary lather.

Part II is about the apparent intent of all our main political parties to make electricity oppressively expensive. I am not going to rehearse the unanswerable arguments against reliance on generating electricity from wind and waves, nor am I going to rail against those in rabid servility to every scare story promoted by those whose financial position rests on acceptance of the catastrophic man-made global warming hypothesis. My concern is with something much more basic and, in my view, important.

As recently as twenty years ago I doubt many would have argued with the proposition that elected politicians in the UK had one duty above all other - to do what they considered to be in the best interests of the people they represent. Of course there can be honest disagreements about what is in the best interests of the little people but the focus of the exercise was unaltered by the outcome of the debate. MPs were in parliament to represent their constituents by acting in what they considered the best interests of their constituents. On local issues they would fight for what they felt was best for the constituency, on national and international issues they would broaden their remit to cover all the people living in the UK because the interests of their constituents were the same as the interests of every other person in the country.

Is it in the best interests of those living in a particular constituency and those living in all constituencies for electricity to be cheap or expensive? To my mind that is not a difficult question and should permit only one answer. Cheaper electricity eases pressure on household budgets and reduces the costs of doing business, as such it is a blindingly obvious desire for any right-thinking person whether or not he is a Member of Parliament. More expensive electricity hits the poorest hardest and hampers our businesses in their aim of selling goods and services to overseas customers. It takes a weirdly warped sense of priorities for any MP to promote a policy that impoverishes his own constituents and the country as a whole.

We all know why they continually pass laws making electricity ever more expensive. In part it is because they have fallen for the great global warming scam. In part it is because they hope it will bring in additional tax. In part it is because they want to set a pointless example to other countries in which politicians are not so craven to Saint Al of Gore and his distinctly unmerry fellow-travellers. In part it is because they have fallen for the "green jobs" scam. In part it is because they are scared of the party whips. In part it is because they think there might be votes in presenting themselves as "green". All these things explain why they support a particular line of policy, but none justifies voting for measures that hurt their constituents and damage the economy of the whole country.

Never let it be said I will miss an opportunity to state the obvious, and today is no exception. The reason we in the UK enjoy our current standard of living is that we have found ways of making physical comfort cheaper than it was before. Human beings have always been doing this and over the last two hundred years or so we have done it so successfully that we now measure material deprivation in the UK not in terms of basic housing, food and clean water but in terms of access to the internet, holidays and mobile telephones. Material comforts that are now taken for granted and deemed essential to subsistence living were either science fiction or oppressively expensive as recently as forty years ago. This happy state of affairs has been brought about by the amazing ability of human beings to invent new things and improve old things so that a luxury lifestyle of the 1950s is attainable on the minimum wage in 2011.

At the heart of all this improvement in the quality of everyday physical comfort is electricity. The cheaper it is, the better we all live. And do not ever forget that those earning good money will always be able to afford comfort, what really matters is allowing those of modest means the ability to get more comfort for their limited money. That is a fundamental part of the duty of MPs to act in the best interests of their constituents and of the country as a whole. However tempting it might be to satisfy international or party agendas, their duty is to their constituents and to the UK. Electricity costs are at the heart of all our lives, especially those of modest means, and any MP with his or her eye on the ball should be fighting against any government measure that increases its price.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

A pointless Olympic junket

Apparently the start of the Olympic Games in London is now just a year away. Tickets have been sold and many eager sports fans left disappointed by not being able to gain access to even a first qualifying round of an obscure event. The very nature of an Olympic Games means that promotion, advertising and encouragement to either watch or participate are wholly unnecessary. Many more than the number that can be admitted to watch have applied for tickets already and all those with a realistic chance of competing have been well aware of next year's event for years.

For some reason the prior anniversary of the start of the event has been deemed an appropriate reason to spend millions of pounds on promotional events around the world. The BBC reports (here) that yesterday London was subject to a rally in Trafalgar Square at which the head of the International Olympic Committee invited competitors to London and the design of the medals was unveiled, the Olympic swimming pool was opened and both the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister made speeches saying what a jolly good games London will host. And (here) it reports that promotional events were hosted at British tax payers' expense at "nearly 100" foreign venues "to encourage visitors, businesses, students and sports people to get involved".

Has there ever been a more fatuous waste of money? I know the competition is stiff but this really does stand out as a piss-up-wall venture of heroic proportions. It's the bloody Olympic games for crying out loud. No one needs encouragement to visit London during the games, or to use it as an advertising medium (which is its only relvance to businesses) and absolutely no sports people are unaware that the Olympics come round every four years wherever they are held. As for students - what on earth have they got to do with the price of fish? I can't help thinking that these events exemplify three worrying phenomena.

First, we have domestic politicians lending their names and time (and our taxes) to an occasion of no relevance to anything domestic other than the standing of those same politicians. Had there been no rally in Trafalgar Square, no formal unveiling of medals and no formal opening of the swimming pool the games would happen next year just the same. As it is, events were organised. That gave a fine opportunity for politicians to divert from their selfless path of public service in order to be there and look good in front of the cameras of the world. They had the option of doing something useful instead and allowing the IOC to spend its own money promoting its own event without assistance from the UK tax-payer. Sadly, there are few votes and no fame to be gained by staying in the office and getting on with work.

Secondly, we have an unaccountable supra-national organisation flying a delegation into town and being treated like visiting heads of state. Why? The games will be held here next year and never again in my lifetime or the lifetime of anyone involved in the IOC. The venues will either be ready or they will not, the medals will either be pleasing to the eye or they will not, new rail and bus routes will either prove efficient or they will not, security measures will either prevent bombs being planted and/or detonated or they will not, visitors will either find hotels in their price range or they will not, everything else involved with the games will either work well or it will not, a visit by delegates of the IOC will make no difference to anything. All that will be achieved is the reinforcement of the concept that such people are special and are due special treatment. That, in turn, reinforces their unaccountability and the prospect of corruption.

Thirdly, we have an enormous waste of money with no one in power questioning a penny of the expense. It's only a few thousand, a few hundred thousand or a few million; chicken feed in the scale of government spending so it doesn't matter. To me it matters an awful lot. There are countless examples of local and national government throwing money at events of no value simply because the sum involved is minuscule compared to the total budget. I really don't care whether the total of all such sums would make a significant dent in the overall budget because they are a waste of money and should not happen regardless of their overall effect on a balance sheet.

I find myself asking why the Olympic Games is not treated like any other commercial venture. Be in no doubt, for the IOC it is a commercial venture just as the football World Cup is a commercial venture for Fifa. Those organisations rake in millions for their own use (and that of their officials) regardless of how much they then distribute to national sports associations. They operate like the EU. What comes first is the organisation at the top, everything lower down the pyramid of power is beholden to the, always unaccountable, Politburo.

In principle national governments are not beholden in the same way because they are not dependent on finance from the supra-national body, however the "ahem" in the woodpile is politicians. Politicians want votes and think, probably correctly, that associating themselves with those in charge of major sporting events is likely to gain more votes than it will lose. The unfortunate downside is that bribes have to be paid. I don't mean brown envelopes stuffed with folding cash (not in this country, anyway), what I mean is spending tax-payers' money to keep the international bureaucrats comfortable and to put on events that make them happy so they will heap praise on the hospitality given to and the respect paid by the Prime Minister to the august body they represent. There is no benefit to the people of the host country, all benefits land safely on the plates of the international bureaucrats and the domestic politicians who laud them.

The result is ever more power and influence being exercised by supranational sporting bodies. For so long as a national government wishes to gain prestige by securing the right to host a major sporting event it must butter-up the small coterie of bureaucrats at the top of the organising body. It would make economic sense for the Olympics to have a permanent venue because country after country that has spent many millions on stadia has found little demand for those facilities once the games ended. Well well, what a surprise. Were there a domestic demand for such facilities they would have been built and then paid for by the fees charged to the people who use them. As it is Olympic stadia for numerous sports are built in a closely defined geographical area which has never before witnessed any demand for such facilities.

Giving the Olympics a permanent home would remove the scope for the supranational body to exert influence, receive favours and bestow honour on incumbent politicians. That is why it will never happen.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Michael Gove plays with his organ

Looks like Michael Gove to me.

Bloody good playing anyway.


Friday, 15 July 2011

A pincer movement of sheer lunacy - Part I

In the curry house yesterday I was asked whether I had been out in the sun, apparently my forehead was bright red and deeply blistered. The reason is not exposure to sunlight, it is relentless frustration with the stupidity of current political debate that has caused the vigorous and repeated application of palm to head. At the moment our Parliament seems to be dominated by two topics - the activities of the press and the government's desire to make electricity prohibitively expensive. Both subjects seem to have a magical power over MPs such that they spout complete and total nonsense without any comprehension of the lack of common sense behind their analyses. I'll deal with the press today.

The basis of Parliamentary hysteria seems to be the "revelation" that a tabloid newspaper published information gleaned from illegal phone taps and computer hacks. Well, well, what a surprise, who'd have thought any such thing has occurred in this country? Everyone, that's who. Another, secondary, "revelation" is that journalists paid money in return for information the law requires to be kept confidential. Well, well, what a surprise, who'd have thought such a thing has occured in this country? Everyone, that's who.

There is only one sensible reaction to these "revelations". It is to get the police to investigate the matter and charge anyone against whom there is sufficient evidence. The activities complained of are already illegal under our law so there is no need for any more laws. The one and only thing that should be done is to enforce existing law.

Instead a Court of Appeal Judge is going to be kept out of court for a year or more so that he can conduct an inquiry which will be called a whitewash if he says current laws are fine and a witch hunt if he says new laws should be passed.

In Parliament we have witnessed the unedifying spectacle of buckets of sanctimonious hogwash being sprayed around by hundreds of MPs, each trying to out-outrage the previous speaker with the level of their ignorant and hypocritical humbug.

Everyone with a brain larger than a pea knows newspapers act in underhand and, sometimes, unlawful ways to get attention-grabbing information they can plaster across their front pages. They all do it. Locals, nationals, broadsheets, tabloids - they all do it.

How do you think the Yokel Local Chronicle learned about the intention of Big Supermarket PLC to buy farmer Giles's front field for a new shop? It's obvious, someone working for the company leaked the news, probably in return for a fee or favour. In that instance the person working for the supermarket company broke the terms of his contract of employment and risked summary dismissal. He had to balance the benefit he gained against the risk of losing his job. The newspaper knew he was breaching his contract but also knew there was no realistic chance of being sued, so it published anyway in order to have a good headline, a reputation for having it's finger on the local pulse and the chance of greater circulation in future and higher advertising revenues. The only question that would trouble the editor is whether the information was true.

Paying for information obtained in other unlawful ways is different only in degree from paying for leaked confidential information about the intentions of a supermarket chain. The degree might be higher or lower, but the substance is the same each time. That some information results from activities that amount to criminal offences and other "feeds" involve a breach of contract but not a crime is a distinction without a difference in this field. We have laws against this sort of activity. Those laws provide a penalty for anyone proved to have breached them. There is one reason and one reason only why those laws were broken - the people breaking them considered the benefit of the breach to outweigh the risk of being caught and/or the penalty for being caught and pursued to judgment. Making the activity doubly unlawful will not change this because it is a matter of human nature rather than of law.

Increasing the penalty can make a big difference to how people behave but it brings up a wholly different matter that makes serious penalties impossible. How does phone tapping or hacking emails compare to burglary, or stabbing someone or holding-up a bank with a shotgun? Obviously infringements of privacy are not in the same league, so what maximum penalty can be justified without the law becoming absurd? There is no certain answer to that question although the general answer is that the maximum penalty, and the penalty actually imposed in any particular case, is unlikely ever to be so severe that it would deter those offered a chunky financial inducement.

Members of Parliament can huff and puff all they want about how morally reprehensible it is to tap the phones of the families of deceased soldiers and victims of crime. I doubt that there are many in the country who have not huffed and puffed in disgust. Nothing MPs say and no amount of hot air they expel can change anything. Newspapers will still use whatever means they can get away with to obtain the information they think their readers want to read, because more readers means more advertisers and that is where the money is.

A theme that ran through contributions in the debate in the House of Commons was a call for regulation not just of how newspapers obtain information but of what they publish. This deserves to result in blistered foreheads across the nation. Do these people really think the interests of the people of this country as a whole are best served by newspapers being constricted in what they are permitted to print and how in buggery do they think such restrictions can be imposed?

Only two restrictions can ever be justified. First, they should not publish things that are untrue. The law covers that already (albeit imperfectly) through the law of libel. Secondly, they should not publish anything that causes them to lose business. This is nothing to do with the law, it is all about the little people voting with their feet. Editorial judgment must be exercised to decide whether a story will be good or bad for circulation. If it will be bad it should not be published, if good it should be published, if it appears good but turns out to be bad the paper can look for a new editor. No other restrictions can have any justification under any circumstances. I hear you cry: what about kiddy porn? Simple, advertisers will disappear overnight, only a few pathetic dribblers will buy the paper, the publisher and numerous editorial staff will face lengthy time behind bars and next week there will be no newspaper.

The very suggestion that there should be any sort of State control over the content of newspapers other than the law of libel is so absurd as to be obscene. Some might suggest it is part of a plot by politicians to protect themselves from criticism, I do not agree. I believe it to be nothing other than an irrational knee-jerk reaction to extremely distasteful newspaper activities that have been exposed recently. The politicians want to be heard expressing disgust so they can have their local paper report they have stood up to be counted. OK, fine, let them say it and get their favourable editorial, then they can return to the real world and acknowledge that what was done was unlawful so no new law is needed and that any attempt to censor the press is bound to fail.

The question they are really addressing is this: should Parliament legislate to prevent publication of the truth? Sadly, they do not seem to be willing or able to understand that this is what they are doing. In any event, how can Parliament legislate to prevent publication of the truth? The key here is "prevent publication". How can Parliament - which can only do anything through the laws it passes - prevent someone doing something? As the law now stands there are penalties for doing naughty things once you have done them, and only then if you are caught and there is sufficient evidence to prove you did them. It is the risk of penalty that is preventative. Short of physical restraint, all the law can do is threaten a penalty in the hope the threat will prevent naughtiness.

So, how do you prevent the truth being told? The simple answer is that you cannot, all you can do is pass laws imposing penalties for telling the truth and therein lies the fundamental flaw in all the guff spouted in Parliament. They can moan about invasions of privacy and the extreme distastefulness of some of those invasions until they are any colour in the face they choose, but they cannot produce a rational argument for the truth being suppressed. If that truth is not to the taste of a newspaper's readership there is a risk to advertising revenue, if it is to their taste the till will ring triumphantly. The little people will vote with their £1 coins. Parliament is an utter irrelevance on this issue. Honourable members should shut up and keep their fingers crossed that their peccadillos remain below the radar.

Tuesday, 28 June 2011

What is justice?

A nasty fat scrote was convicted last week of the murder of a thirteen year-old girl by the name of Amanda "Milly" Dowler (here). Her murderer, as he was eventually proved to be, pleaded "not guilty" when put on trial so the forensic process that has developed over centuries was put in train. English law, as it stands at present, requires the prosecution to prove the guilt of an accused person beyond reasonable doubt and has a complex system of procedural rules to try to ensure that no innocent person will be convicted of a crime. Only a fool would suggest that the system is perfect, nonetheless it is as it is as a result of thousands of minor adjustments over hundreds of years. Further adjustments will be made as time passes, I can only hope they all bear in mind the overriding consideration that the innocent should not be convicted.

The procedural rules cover four main areas. First, there are requirements for the police to conduct their investigation subject to certain limits, for example questioning suspects must not involve oppressive actions. Secondly there are limits to what can be put before a jury - this is the law of evidence that, for example, allows hearsay evidence only in certain circumstances. Thirdly there are limits to how a lawyer may put a case in court, these are imposed by the codes of conduct that apply to barristers and solicitors. Breach of the codes of conduct can, in extreme cases, lead to someone being disqualified from practising law and in less extreme instances there can be suspensions of practising certificates or fines. Fourthly, trials are presided over by judges who have a wide discretion to prevent lines of questioning if they consider them insufficiently relevant. It is not without reason that judges can only preside over serious cases if they have earned a "ticket" to do so.

Over the last few days the conduct of the lawyers defending Milly Dowler's murderer has been subject to a great deal of ill-informed criticism. I need not explain the errors of the critics because it has been done already by Ms Wig (here), to which I was alerted by the good Mr Paine. My comment today is not about the details of that case but about something much more troubling, namely a false definition of justice.

One thing we must get clear right at the beginning is that the victim of a crime is the victim - not the victim's family and friends, not the readers of a newspaper, not people with children of the same age or bearing some physical resemblance to the victim, not people of the same racial or social grouping as the victim, but the victim and only the victim. Milly Dowler was the victim and only Milly Dowler was the victim, desperately distressing though her death was to her parents they were not the victim, Milly Dowler was the only victim in the murder of Milly Dowler.

Justice in the case of the murder of Milly Dowler could be delivered only by convicting her murderer of murder and having him sentenced according to current sentencing laws. That is an exercise between the State and the accused. It is absolutely not an exercise between the victim's family and the accused.

Far too often I read or hear references to a criminal trial bringing justice for the victim or the victim's family, that is utter nonsense. It will, no doubt, give them a degree of comfort that someone has been convicted; frankly they would receive the same degree of comfort whether the person convicted was the murderer or someone who was completely innocent. The administration of criminal justice is exercised by the State on behalf of the general populace and is intended to reach a true result whether or not the victim or victim's family is happy with the outcome. I say again, in serious cases the victim and/or victim's family often wants someone convicted, anyone, and they have no interest in whether the convicted person is guilty of the offence. The system of justice is designed, albeit not perfectly, to convict only those proved clearly to be guilty. If that means a family continues to mourn a murdered person and never discovers who committed the heinous crime, so be it.

The system must be unemotional and impersonal. The system must acquit anyone it cannot prove to be guilty. He or she might be guilty in fact but if we, as a general society, are to impose a penalty we would not volunteer for ourselves we must do so for good reason. A crime committed against a famous or popular person deserves no greater investigation and no lower standard of proof than one committed against a homeless crack addict with no family or friends to wail in public. Each requires the over-weaning powers of the State to result in a penalty against an individual only if the State can prove that a penalty is justified.

It is inevitable that some very serious crimes are never solved. No matter how thorough the police investigation, nothing can happen unless it turns-up evidence of sufficient weight to justify prosecuting a suspect. And even when the Crown Prosecution Service believes it has enough to justify a prosecution, that will only be enough to justify a conviction once a trial has been conducted, the defendant's lawyers have challenged the prosecution case as well as they can and a jury has returned a verdict of guilty. Unsolved cases involved victims and family of victims just as much as solved cases.

Criminal justice is about the defendant not the victim or the victim's family. There is no such thing as justice for the victim or the victim's family because, by definition the victim has already undergone his or her trauma, sometimes fatal trauma, and his or her family have suffered their consequential trauma. All that is left is the chance of identifying, convicting and sentencing the perpetrator. The only question is whether there is sufficient evidence to satisfy a jury that they should say "guilty" rather than "not guilty".

Pandering to victims and, in particular, to consequential or vicarious victims is no way to administer justice. If we give them any special protection in court from the questioning that would be relevant of a non-victim / non-victim family member, we risk placing their peace of mind above justice. I know it it will sound harsh to those of a certain mind, but it must be said loud and clear - no victim and no victim's family is entitled to see someone convicted and given a penalty. Whether someone is convicted and given a penalty depends not on the feelings and desires of anyone, it depends on cold, hard proof of guilt to the strict standard that is imposed to ensure (so far as possible) that only the guilty face the serious penalties resulting from conviction for criminal offences.

In this field, as in so many, meaningless feel-good concepts have been developed by psychologists with too little to do. One such concept is that of "closure" ( I occasionally comment on a "bad word", this is one). I watch little television but I do enjoy quasi-documentary programmes about real crimes, especially murders, a lot of which feature on a channel called Crime and Investigation. Time and again there is a police officer spouting words he has learned but never analysed, he says "we are pleased to have given the family closure" or some such twaddle. Anyone with half a brain understands that the death of a loved one is something that lives with you for ever. That someone is convicted of killing the late lamented loved one gives a degree of comfort but the pain continues and will continue until the end of your life. "Closure" is a concept designed to make victims or their families feel good but it has nothing to do with justice.

Criminal justice is not personal, it is not something delivered to victims, it is wholly and utterly about the State imposing a penalty against those proved to have broken laws. It is, so far as the system can ensure, impartial, impersonal, unbiased, unbigoted and aimed at only the defendant. Any attempt to change these principles will result in more innocent people being convicted, that is not something I would welcome.

Monday, 27 June 2011

Chinese PM: "Scrap the Euro"

They're dashed clever these oriental types and they grow up in a culture in which loss of face is a serious matter. Whenever an established position needs to be altered you will not witness an admission of error or even of change of mind, the switch will be effected either by sacrifice of the career and reputation of the person nominated to take blame or by a series of gradual shifts of emphasis, each explained as an incremental development of existing policy in the light of new circumstances.

Their approach mirrors that of most modern western European politicians, these days only the rarest instance arises of an overt and admitted change of mind. Here in the UK we saw a sea-change in the mid and late 1990s as the spin machine of the Blairite Labour opposition pounced on any division, indecision or flip-flop on the part of the incumbent Conservative government. It was a well-organised (but patently dishonest) approach and it presented the image required for electoral purposes. Since then a united front and a consistent position have been seen as fundamental to the prospect of gaining political power, it allows only limited scope for a change of mind, indeed I would suggest the only exception is when both main parties have to abandon a previously advocated stance because of external factors.

The main players of the EU are even less inclined to change their positions, albeit for a different reason. No ballot box can oust them but they are on a mission to remove all powers from individual EU member states and create a single political system under the dictation of the EU oligarchy. In order to achieve this they must appear strong, so strong that national governments have no realistic chance of challenging or overturning the position the EU's permanent rulers have decreed to be correct. Perhaps the greatest exemplar of this is the Euro. The Euro is the means by which the aim of unified political control can be achieved. For some us it is also seen as the means by which unified political control can, should and will be defeated but that is not the topic for today.

Buttering-up the locals publicly is a necessary part of international diplomacy, often accompanied by quiet expressions of criticism being made behind the scenes. Criticising the locals publicly is an inevitable part of international power-grabs, often accompanied by soothing words of support to incumbent politicians in private until they are no longer of use. When it comes to business, the ideal situation to find is one in which others are acting in a way that will be of enormous benefit to your business in the long term. In that situation you would be mad to point out their errors, so you adopt your public diplomatic hat and say nothing else, safe in the knowledge that it will deliver you economic power that you could not achieve by criticism. That is what China's Prime Minister, Mr Wen, is doing very successfully during his short tour of Europe. We are told (here) he said "China will consistently support Europe and the euro." Well, yes, of course, he would be mad to say anything else. Supporting Europe is a fine sentiment that is totally without substantive meaning. The final three words are, however, in a different category.

Why would China want to support the Euro? A strong Euro zone full of throbbing economies making lots of goodies to sell to China would undoubtedly provide all the benefits history proves to arise from efficient, competitive production but the same would arise from those throbbing economies having their own individual currencies - as it did throughout the industrial era until the Euro was established. Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain (the PIIGS) are living proof that the Euro does not have magical powers and cannot turn idleness into profit or house-price bubbles into genuine wealth. The economies of these countries are not throbbing and nothing about the Euro can make them throb. If truth be told they would probably not throb outside the Euro but they would have the chance of stability at their own sustainable level of economic activity. Out of the Euro these countries can offer China greater trading opportunities than they can while still inside but that is not of any great interest to Mr Wen.

Mr Wen is playing the second half of the game China played during the boom years of 2003-7. Then China cashed-in on the additional money (I stress money, not wealth) sloshing about Western Europe due to the expansion of credit beyond sustainable levels. That it was not sustainable made no difference to China, it sent us washing machines and we sent it money. Washing machines lose value far faster than money, they need to be replaced so China says thank you and sticks another wad in the bank. Now that the PIIGS are having to face up to their earlier folly and are unable to ease their situation by devaluation, they need to raise money. The EU considers it necessary to keep them in the Euro zone and the only way that can happen is by increasing their debt enormously in the short term in the vain hope of something coming along later to allow repayment. One thing can come along in pretty short order, namely Chinese money. After all, China has lots of money in the bank that came from the PIIGS in exchange for washing machines and other jolly delights of modern life.

Buttering-up the locals is easily done when you have lots of money. The course chosen by China is to buy Euro currrency bonds issued by the insolvent PIIGS, to send a signal of confidence that is in fact nothing of the sort because they are safe in the knowledge that those bonds are essentially backed by all Euro zone economies (including Germany) due to the EU's need to support the Euro project. All the while the PIIGS will remain insolvent unless they can raise large sums of money. China is awash with the profits from years of washing machines, that is all very well except that cash can only fall in value over time whereas turning cash into capital assets stands a chance of giving a positive return over the longer term.

China's plan is to buy capital assets at below par value, a plan that is easy to achieve when the current owner is desperate for cash and is willing to hold a fire sale just to get something in the bank. It happened with the MG Rover site in Birmingham and it will happen with state-owned and privately-owned land and businesses throughout the EU. The UK and most of those in the Euro zone gave them the money to do so by creating credit we could not afford and spending it on Chinese goods, now that we need additional money (either because we are illiquid or because we are insolvent), the very money we created is being used to save us however in return we must give capital assets we can have no hope of ever recovering.

Of course China supports the Euro. Maintaining the Eurozone with its current participants means there are five countries (the PIIGS) in such dire need that there are rich pickings for Mr Wen and his merry men.

When Mr Wen says his country will support the Euro he is not giving it a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, he is shouting as loud as he can that the Euro is a disaster and must be scrapped to prevent the wholesale transfer of capital assets to his country.

They're dashed clever these oriental types.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

The truth about Greece

Now look, there's no need to get yourself into a twisted-knicker situation, it's all really very simple.

Individuals, families, businesses, clubs, towns, cities, counties, countries or federations of countries only have so much wealth. Wealth is measured in money but money is not, in and of itself, wealth. Money is a system of tokens that we give and receive in place of real stuff. The true value of money is dictated by the stuff it represents. I grow a pound of runner beans and you like to eat runner beans so you are prepared to give me something for those runner beans. What should you give? Well, that's up to you. You decide what my pound of runner beans is worth to you. You might offer two pounds of potatoes, or a small diamond, or twenty minutes with your wife, or you might offer money. You must value my runner beans and offer what you consider to be a fair exchange. What is essential is that you offer something of substance because I have no incentive to give up a pound of delicious green scrumptiousness unless I receive something that I value as highly as I value the finest vegetable god ever created.

Our transaction is not about money, it is about stuff. It is about something substantive. I give you something to enhance your life and you give me something to enhance my life. Were I to accept potatoes, diamond or fleeting fleshy pleasures with a lady who has seen better days, we exchange no money. Except that we do. Money is involved in all trades, even barter, because money is just a language by which we value stuff. Money is involved in a swap of a pound of runner beans for two pounds of potatoes just as it is involved in the swap of a pound of runner beans for a £2 coin. The reason it is involved is that the trade comes first, the stuff comes first, and money is just a way we can assign value to the goods we exchange. That exchange involves £2 for £2. My £2 is runner beans, your £2 is ten minutes access to a scrawny dry crone, although the reality is the other way round - £2 is the token we assign to represent each side of what is actually exchanged. Without stuff behind it, £2 means nothing. It has no value of itself.

That is not to say that the production of a pound of runner beans that gives me a £2 coin is a transaction without consequences. I take that coin to Mr Patel's Minimart and exchange it for a super-sized condom (in preparation for my next visit to Madame Fifi's Sauna and Hanky-Panky Parlour) thereby giving Mr Patel a bit of profit and justifying the profit he has already paid to Mr Choudery's Cash-n-Carry who have already given a bit of profit to the manufacturers of the intimate rubber item of gentleman's apparel. Their profits are the consequence of me producing something new. But that tells the story from only one side. Kingdong Condom Ltd also produced something, something rather big actually, and it is the combined action of turning what I produced and what they produced into economic activity that gave work and profit to Mr Patel and Mr Choudery. The whole thing is sustainable because it is based on stuff that people value sufficiently to be prepared to exchange their own stuff for it.

Economic activity that is not part of the production and exchange of stuff is a drain on the wealth of a national economy. What each country has to do is decide how much of the profit derived from the production of stuff can justifiably be committed to activities that drain wealth. Some government expenditure supports and contibutes to the production and exchange of stuff, sadly the things that buy votes are usually nothing other than a drain.

Greece suffers from one thing and one thing only, its government spends far too much money on things that do not support and contribute to the production and exchange of stuff.

There is only so much wealth in any national economy. It can go up and down from year to year but each year and each decade it is limited by the amount of stuff that is produced and exchanged. Wealth comes from the production and exchange of stuff and from nothing else.

Governments can produce more money but they cannot produce more wealth because they cannot produce more stuff. They can produce money by diluting their currency through either the printing press or devaluation, in each case they reduce the value of each unit of currency in circulation; they do not, however, change the substance of their national economy. The substance is dictated by the production and exchange of stuff. Currently the government of Greece can produce neither money nor stuff. It cannot turn on the printing press and it cannot devalue because it is tied into the ludicrous Euro, yet it is spending far more on non-productive governmental activity than the Greek nation's output of stuff can sustain.

Greece is bust, it's a simple as that. Nonetheless it still has a valuable economy, it's just that it is overvalued because it is tied into the Euro. Released from the straitjacket of the Euro the true value of it's economic activity will be reflected because there will be adverse effects to every part of its economy from its government continuing to overspend. Only then will there be any chance of the Greek economy becoming sustainable.

Monday, 13 June 2011

Privately collected taxes

My old chum Mr Wadsworth regularly puts forward a proposition I just can't understand (as he did yesterday). The starting point, as I understand it, is that governmental activities sometimes result in people making money they would otherwise not make. No one could dispute that. This government-inspired profit is described as "privately collected tax", and that is the concept I cannot grasp.

I suppose it all depends on where you start. The blankest page is one of anarchy, a situation in which there is no government and, therefore, nothing we would describe as law. Onto that blank page we put a system of government or, to be more precise, we put a system of law. The most basic effect of any system of law is prohibition of particular activities accompanied by sanctions for breaking the prohibition. Every prohibition that impinges on economic activity results in people either gaining or losing money compared to how things would be in the absence of the prohibition. I can illustrate what I mean with a simple example.

Two factories make motor cars. A law is brought in requiring all new cars to meet a particular standard of robustness in the event of a head-on collision. Factory A's cars meet that standard but Factory B's cars do not and it would cost so much to redesign them that Factory B is no longer viable. Factory B closes and Factory A makes additional sales as a direct result of Factory B no longer being a rival. As I understand it, the theory says Factory A benefits from "privately collected taxes" because it makes additional income because of the new law - that law gives an economic advantage and this advantage is said to be a "privately collected tax".

I fail to see this as privately collected tax. To my mind it is an economic consequence of a law but it is not a tax unless you adopt a highly artificial definition of tax.

It is hard to find an example of economic activity in the UK which is not affected by law. The costs of manufacturers and retailers are increased by the need to comply with health and safety laws. Those who are unable to comply or who can only comply at a cost that makes their business unprofitable will go to the wall. They do not go bust because of tax they go bust because of the cost of complying with the law. Those who are able to comply do not make "privately collected taxes" they make income by selling their wares within the framework of the law. All businesses that receive income by way of cheques or card payments do so only because there is a framework of law to give such payments a cash value. Businesses that deal only in cash receive valuable income only because the law recognises bank notes and coins to have value. To what extent do the laws that turn cheques, plastic payments, notes and coins into useable value represent "privately collected taxes"?

No sensible person could deny that laws allow people to make income they would not make in the absence of those laws. Indeed, I would go further and suggest that no one earning a living in this country would earn exactly the same living doing exactly the same thing without a complex framework of laws affecting the job they do and the field of business within which they operate. Identifying a single law and suggesting that it provides a benefit that should be classified as a "privately collected tax" is, in my view, to take that single law out of context. All other laws that affect the business in question will necessarily increase or decrease income or costs. Any law that increases income must be balanced against laws that increase costs.

It is no more realistic to look at those laws that lead to increased income or decreased costs as allowing the business to benefit from "privately collected taxes" than it is to say the laws that lead to decreased income or increased costs amount to "privately incurred tax rebates". And that is the heart of the matter. Once one adopts the language of tax to describe something one must adopt all the language of tax and describe every aspect of the business in the same way. If you describe economic benefits received because of a new law as "privately collected taxes" you have to have a description of losses incurred as a result of a new law. Only "privately incurred tax rebates" could fit the bill yet it is a nonsense because there is no one to pay a rebate. The reality is that some people benefit from new laws and some people suffer a detriment, but neither the benefit nor the detriment is tax in any sensible use of the word.

Friday, 3 June 2011

The PIIGS and one-sided equations

The good Dr North has been pointing out for some time that things in Europe are not all sweetness and light (for recent examples, see here and here). He observes that mass demonstrations are taking place with a degree of regularity in Spain and Greece as the little people give vent to their frustration at the economic mismanagement of their political masters. None of us knows what the outcome will be, nor whether it will be the same in both countries or, indeed, in any of the other countries teetering on the brink of government bankruptcy.

What troubles me is not that people are finally waking up and complaining, it is that they are complaining about completely the wrong thing. Their target is undoubtedly correct, politicians have left the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain) deep in the mire through reckless economic mismanagement. Their complaint, however, appears not to be that their governments borrowed and wasted too much but that they do not want their governments to stop borrowing and wasting now that existing debts cannot be repaid. We see exactly the same delusionary behaviour in this country whenever the trades unions wheel out their usual rent-a-mob to bemoan a tiny bit of trimming from departmental budgets to find cash to pay the interest charges incurred by Gordon Brown's feckless stewardship of the Treasury.

I am not in the least bit surprised. Governments all over Europe have been winning elections for years by presenting one-sided equations that sound nice but do not stand up to even the gentlest scrutiny. These one-sided equations are the tool of every headline-grabbing initiative and are not restricted to the field of economic policy, we see them all the time in the field of health policy.

Smoking / drinking / one food / another food / too much exercise / lack of exercise / salt / lack of salt, or whatever is the scare of the day, is calculated to cost the NHS so-many hundreds of millions of pounds and must therefore be banned. The figures are always wrong, always grossly exagerrated, but that is beside the point; even if they were correct they only look at one side of the equation. Treating medical conditions which might not have arisen had the patient not been a smoker can be seen as a cost caused by smoking, there is nothing unreasonable in that as a general proposition. The problem is that the NHS does not exist in a vacuum and it is not funded in a vacuum, it is funded out of taxes and smokers pay taxes that others do not pay; shops and wholesalers make profits on which taxes are paid, workers in those businesses and in every stage of the cigarette production and distribution network pay taxes on their wages. The taxes gathered from the ciggy network grossly exceed even the most dishonestly overstated costs attributed to adverse consequences of smoking.

The same is seen in the moronic argument that "green" production of electricity will be economically beneficial because it will create new jobs. Of course it will create new jobs because no one has been so stupid before to pay people to do anything so utterly pointless, but even so the benefit of these new jobs is only one side of the equation. On the other side lies the fact that employing more people to generate the same amount of electricity means it is more expensive and that cost must be passed on through higher prices. Higher prices for electricity means higher costs for businesses and individuals. Those businesses can be tipped into insolvency causing their employees to lose their jobs and individuals who must spend an extra £100 on electricity have £100 less to spend on other things thereby depriving Mr Patel's Merrymart and Madame Fifi's Sauna and Hanky-Panky Parlour of income, resulting in shed staff and less tax being paid. No one should be surprised that studies in both France and Scotland reveal each "green" job to cause the loss of more than two other jobs.

So it is also with the bubble of economic activity arising from an unsustainable expansion of credit. Of course it means people have more money and buy more stuff which means shops and manufacturers employ more staff, make more profit and pay more tax. The government takes credit for the miracle of an ever-expanding economy. Apparent riches for all means votes for incumbents. The other side of the equation in this situation contains what groovy hep cats might term a "double-whammy".

Credit cannot go on expanding for ever, eventually you reach a point where you cannot borrow any more because even the most foolhardy lender is not prepared to advance you another penny. At that point the economic expansion arising from credit necessarily stops and in due course it must be reversed as people realise they must repay their borrowings. It doesn't necessarily happen all of a sudden although it did two years ago because banks simply stopped lending. In addition to the reduction in economic activity resulting from the wind-down of credit-based spending we have the second whammy, namely a reduction in tax receipts for the government. The additional sums received in the boom years were used to strengthen their electoral position. Were we cruel people we could suggest they used tax receipts to bribe voters, but we aren't cruel so we will instead describe the spending of this windfall of unsustainable taxes as the result of nothing more sinister than stupidity. Unfortunately the stupidity knew few bounds so the PIIGS, the UK and many other countries find themselves with government spending commitments far in excess of tax receipts.

A sober and sensible approach to the problem would recognise that governments handed out treats that could not really be afforded even when times appeared good, so now that they are far from good those treats cannot be given any more. The governments of Spain and Greece are trying to cut back a fraction of the unaffordable treats and it is this that causes discontent on the streets. The people are complaining that something they should never have had in the first place (because it could not be afforded) should be maintained despite government income being substantially lower than it was in 2009, it is utter madness. A particular difficulty arises with government spending compared to individual spending, namely that the consequences of reducing it are highly visible. A million people each spending £50 less is equivalent to government spending £50million less - the former is just a normal incident of life whereas the latter is a headline in every newspaper.

I cannot help thinking that pushing one-sided equations at their people and arguing tooth and nail that the equations in question have only one side is the root of current public disquiet in Spain and Greece. There is every sign that the people demonstrating against plans to trim government spending really believe there is only one side to the equation. In a way this should not be surprising, both countries had long periods of socialist government in which the allure of the magic money tree was all pervading - no need to worry, the government will pay for it, the government has a bottomless pit of money because it just plucks some more from the magic money tree. We should be more worried about this reason for mass demonstration than we would have to be were demonstrators complaining about overspending in the past.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Huhne - the car's the key

Let's take a hypothetical situation and see how we should go about solving a mystery. The situation is this. A man has been in in France for a few days and flies back to England, landing at Stansted airport at about 10.23pm. The same evening his wife is at a function at the London School of Economics, the function commenced at 6.30pm and she is believed to have left by 10pm at the latest. At 11.23 the same evening a motor car registered to the man is photographed speeding on a road between Stansted and London. Either the man or his wife was driving the car at the time the speeding offence was committed. The mystery is to identify which of them was driving.

How do we solve the mystery? I know how I would go about it, I would not look at the people first but at the car.

Where was the car while the man was in France? On the face of it there are two relevant possibilities, either it was parked at the airport awaiting his return or it was not. Is there a record of cars parked at the airport during the period he was abroad and, if so, was his car parked there throughout or was it removed at some point? If it was there all the time the only chance of the wife driving it back to town from the airport would be by her taking the train to Stansted (say 20 minutes to get to Liverpool Street station and at least a further 45 minutes to Stansted). Quite why she would do so rather than let him drive back is unclear, because the time it would take her to get there is as long as the flight from France so it would have to have been arranged before he left the continent.

If there is no evidence of the car being at Stansted throughout I would investigate whether the London congestion charge was levied against the car during the period he was abroad, if it was we know the car was within central London and not at Stansted. Was the congestion charge levied on the day in question? The London School of Economics is within the congestion charge zone, so the charge will have been triggered if the wife had it with her while she was at the college, though her options for parking would have been severely limited unless she was given a spot by the college itself - was she?

I would then ask whether the wife had her own car at the time. If she did, it would seem more natural for her to use her own vehicle to collect her husband. Wives often, but not invaiably, use their husband's cars to collect their worse half only when he wants to drive back - men being so much more fussy than women about what they drive.

Trying to solve the mystery by reference to where the wife was at various points of time on a date more than eight years ago is fraught with difficulties because of the need to rely on personal recollections. The car is the key.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Raping common sense

Rape is a subject only the bravest or most foolhardy politician deals with because you can be sure that anything you advocate, short of castration of all male babies at birth, will result in a torrent of high-volume but low-quality nonsense from a whole raft of attention seeking morons.

Ken Clarke proclaimed, to universal outrage from the non-thinking, that some rapes are worse than others (summarised here). He was, of course, absolutely correct. Some murders are worse than others, some armed robberies are worse than others, some speeding offences are worse than others and some rapes are worse than others.

It should be observed at the start that there are two broad categories of rape, reflected in the American distinction between "statutory rape" and "rape". Statutory rape is, in broad summary, consensual sexual intercourse where the law deems one or both of the participants to be incapable of giving consent even though they do actually give consent. In this country the age of consent is sixteen, so every time a girl or boy under the age of sixteen has sexual intercourse the other person involved commits rape according to English law and it is fair and sensible to call it "statutory rape" even if both parties consent. It is not rape according to the law that applies to adults because adult consent is recognised as being of value in the eyes of the law, but consent under the age of sixteen is deemed impossible. It takes a staggering degree of blind ignorance to be unaware that girls and boys of fourteen and fifteen have been rutting for generations, they certainly did when I was at school. Nonetheless, the law is as it is and it has to draw a line somewhere, however imperfect or unreasonable that line might be in particular cases.

"Statutory rape" itself comes in many shapes and forms. You can have two fifteen year-olds "doing it", in which case each is raping the other according to the law. You can have one under-sixteen and one of sixteen; one of fourteen and one of nineteen; one of fifteen and one of forty and so on and so forth. According to the law, each of these instances involves exactly the same offence but only a fool would suggest they are all the same. As a matter of everyday experience we might like to presume that the older person always holds sway and, as a general rule that might well be true, but it is far from always the case.

"Rape" as opposed to "statutory rape" arises where one party does not consent to intercourse. It might be the male or it might be the female. Is it not obvious that a difference exists between every "rape" and every "statutory rape"? In the former one party does not consent, in the latter both parties consent but the law does not recognise the consent of at least one. In the former it is necessarily the case that one person is forcing themselves on another in the most intimate way possible whereas in the latter no one is necessarily being forced to do anything.

So what of "non-statutory rape", is it a single black-and-white offence without shades of grey? Of course not. Some rapes involve the minimum possible amount of violence for the perpetrator to get his or her way while others include threats of violence from the mild to the utterly terrifying or violence itself of every conceivable degree. None of this dilutes the fact that the act of rape itself is a serious violation of one human being by another, and Mr Clarke was not suggesting otherwise. He was pointing out nothing more than that some rapes are more serious offences and, therefore, deserving of harsher sentences than others.

I first learned of this episode when listening to a radio news broadcast while driving back home after collecting a pile of manure. As soon as the BBC's summary of Mr Clarke's comments was given I said to myself "it's Wednesday, Milliband will have called for Clarke's dismissal at Prime Minister's Questions". Lo and behold, Miliband called for Clarke's dismissal at PMQs. Pure student union politics - naive, unrealistic and failing to address the point that was made. It was like having Gordon Brown back but with a fake mockney-estuary accent rather than a dribbling, bitter Scottish brogue.

The absurdity of Miliband's position is that he had an open goal and chose to kick his opponent rather than the ball. Ken Clarke did not just offer opinions about rape out of the blue, he did so in the context of a proposal to reduce the length of time some rapists spend in prison after conviction. Perhaps Miliband was mindful of his own party's failings during their thirteen years in government, during which sentences for serious offences got shorter and shorter and punishments for petty regulatory infringements got harsher and harsher. The standard three years' imprisonment for a first domestic burglary has become a caution or written warning or a few hours of community service. The standard seven years for rape without extrinsic violence has fallen to between two and three. Armed robbery now gets six years rather than twelve. Defrauding the taxpayer of tens of thousands of pounds earns only eighteen months when four years would have been unappealable twenty years ago. All this happened during the previous government's time in office, sadly it is continuing now.

Rape is a nasty offence. Forcing someone into the most intimate possible act against their will, with possible consequences of unwanted pregnancy or sexually-transmitted diseases, is barbaric to my simple mind. I doubt that many would disagree with the sentiment "no, you just don't do that to someone else, not ever". Few crimes get or deserve that reaction. Statutory rape in which consent is genuine does not get or deserve that reaction. Current sentences for non-statutory rape are derisory because Parliament has decreed that they should be. It is for that serious dereliction of duty that politicians should be held to account, not for pointing out the blindingly obvious.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Let's get this David Laws issue right

David Laws is a highly intelligent and articulate man who has enjoyed great success in business and is now a Member of Parliament. For seventeen days last year he was a member of the Cabinet - appointed to the Privy Council and entitled to be known as "Right Honourable". In the fortnight between his appointment and his resignation he made a good impression on a lot of people, me included. The message he put forward was restricted to his ministerial duties at the Treasury and was as clear a statement as you could have of the necessary consequences of the previous government having spent far too much money that it didn't have. Then it was disclosed that he had claimed £40,000-odd in expenses to which he was not entitled and he left office (but did not resign from the Privy Council).

The essential circumstances of this wrongful receipt of money are important. Mr Law was a secret homosexual and shared a home with a gentleman friend. Beause he did not wish to disclose his proclivity to his family or to the world in general he pretended that he was renting a room in his friend's home and claimed that rent as expenses. The reality was that he was living with the man rather than renting a room from him. No doubt he made a financial contribution to the running of their joint household and, had matters been declared openly, at least some of that could have been reclaimed as expenses. I have read suggestions that he could have claimed more than he actually claimed and am happy to accept that as true.

Two matters that frequently crop up in discussions about Mr Laws must be discarded immediately because they are not relevant to the crucial point.

First, that he is independently wealthy as a result of his previous work did not disqualify him from claiming legitimate expenses. A system existed for compensating Members of Parliament for constituencies outside London for costs they incurred by reason of having to run two homes rather than one. We can quibble about the details of the scheme but there was a scheme and an MP who incurred additional living costs was entitled to claim at least some of them. Mr Laws could afford not to claim anything but it would be absurd to argue that his private wealth should exclude him from having additional costs reimbursed - that would amount to requiring him to make a substantial additional contribution of tax.

Secondly, that he could have claimed the same sums or more had he arranged matters differently is neither here nor there. He did not arrange matters differently, he arranged them as he arranged them for reasons of his own. A footballer who hacks an opponent's ankle to prevent him making a pass cannot avoid a yellow card by claiming that he could have used a lawful shoulder charge instead. What matters is what happened not what might have happened had you not chosen to do what you actually did.

The crucial point is very very simple. He told deliberate lies in order to expropriate money. Had he been paying rent to his friend he would not have been entitled to reclaim that rent because of the nature of their relationship (namely that they co-habited in a single household regardless of bedroom preferences). It seems unlikely to me that he did pay rent, but anything is possible. If we assume he did pay rent he was not entitled to reimbursement and he knew it. He lied about the nature of the relationship in order to get the money. It is blatant fraud. If, as I suspect is more likely, he contributed financially to the household and those contributions are not properly defined as rent, he lied about the nature of the payments he made in order to be repaid out of public funds. That is also blatant fraud.

It is a matter of the simplest and most basic test of honesty. Spinning a policy so fast that a politician appears to be saying something factually inaccurate will be defined as lying by his political opponents when it is possible (sometimes only by being incredibly generous) to describe it as ambitious advocacy. Some might consider it dishonest or even fraudulent to act in this way but there is room for debate on the issue. There is no room for debate when it comes to making deliberate false statements in order to claim money you could not obtain if you told the truth.

Some might suggest that Mr Laws should have special dispensation because he was merely trying to keep his private life private. That just doesn't wash with me. He told deliberate lies in order to get money from the public purse. Whatever the circumstances and however strong the mitigation might be, the underlying dishonesty remains and that dishonesty is what is relevant first last and all the time in this tale.

Now suggestions are being made that Mr Laws might return to the cabinet. I am not concerned about the "signal" this sends to anyone, because that looks at it from the wrong angle. I am concerned that someone who thought it appropriate to lie in order to obtain money he could not have obtained by telling the truth should be in Parliament at all let alone in the uppermost layer of government. No matter how able he might be and no matter how strongly he wanted to keep his sexuality secret, his chosen method of protecting himself was to act in a way wholly inconsistent with the responsibilities of ministerial office.

It was not so long ago that dishonesty caused resignation as a matter of course, not just resignation from ministerial office but from Parliament, and banishment to the history books as a former politician with no hope of recovery. Ability was irrelevant because the right to represent others and to hold power over others required probity. The country might lose the services of someone with much to offer but that was of no consequence when the politician in question had failed to conduct himself in a way Parliament and the law requires the little people to behave. You can call it a betrayal of trust if you want, I believe it is something more general and, perhaps, more fundamental. If you are to have power over others you can only justify your position if you live by the standards the law requires of those under your power.

Mr Laws chose to act dishonestly and in doing so he forfeited any right to have power over others. He should not still be in Parliament, for him to return to the cabinet would cast a serious blow against the fragile legitimacy of the current coalition government.