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Saturday, 23 August 2008

Brown's duff judgment should worry us all

It is irregular theatregoers who are likely to be so captivated by the spectacle of theatre that they praise a production the rest of us regard as a bit duff; likewise, in my youth, an acquaintance who went to just one rock concert was convinced that the group he saw were so superlatively talented that all else could be disregarded. This sort of irrational enthusiasm is always a little embarrassing when encountered in someone that one knows. In a Prime Minister, it warns of a dangerously unbalanced sense of judgement.

Gordon Brown must have become so conditioned to failure in his life that contact with success has induced a sort of hysterical irrationality. Like the rest of the nation, I am revelling in our haul of medals. I quietly expect the next New Year's honours list to include a small clutch of MBEs and OBEs for our Olympians. But for the Prime Minister like some pub bore to publicly proclaim that the Queen should shower our contestants with honours strikes a psychologically discordant note.

Even more disturbing is his odious comparison of our athletes with our soldiers in Afghanistan. One risks a hamstring injury in pursuit of sporting glory, the other his or her life in service to their country. There is no rational parallel. It is symptomatic of Brown's rather jejune irrationality that he should imagine there is some equivalence.

It is indeed confirmation, if any were needed, of the third-rate nature of Brown's intellect and of his inability to think the right thoughts at the right time. In a pub bore such traits are tolerable; in a Prime Minister they are deeply disturbing.

Friday, 22 August 2008

Time to 'comb out' the free riders

As this blog reported in October of last year, immigration is a mixed bag. Some are givers, good for the country and the economy, and some are takers, a tax burden and consumers of housing and services at our expense. Now the Speccie has become alive to the fact:
If the government is serious about optimising the planning of public services, it needs to disaggregate the immigrant population and find out which groups are profit centres and which are cost centres. No doubt it has been doing so quietly in the background, but it looks as if talking frankly about the results of this exercise in public would blow their political cover to smithereens. The best research so far available (prepared by the IPPR late last year for Channel 4’s Dispatches) makes for uneasy reading. Only 1 per cent of Polish immigrants claim income support, as opposed to 21 per cent of Turkish immigrants and 11 per cent of Pakistanis; only 8 per cent of Poles live in social housing, compared with 80 per cent of Somalis, and 41 per cent of Bangladeshis.
The reason that 2m immigrants over the past decade haven't raised per capita GDP one iota is that half of them are free riders, consuming the wealth that the other half are creating. Now that we're on the brink of recession, the free riders will consume more than the wealth-makers are generating.

'Combing out' a million unproductive immigrants and packing them off home may sound like a huge task, but it need not be. First we must abolish the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens to vote. Signing onto the electoral register opens up a whole world of bank accounts, social housing and benefits as well as access to utility accounts . Our electoral register is deeply corrupted with false entries and the unentitled. When one council started to undertake a house-by-house audit after a postal vote fraud scandal, their electoral role rapidly fell by 20% as the frauds withdrew. This would be replicated in all of our large towns and cities.

Secondly, social housing should be reserved solely for British citizens and housing benefit and council tax benefit claims should require proof of citizenship.

Thirdly, the many deeply corrupt Foreign Office junior grade civil servants who work in High Commissions abroad issuing visas must be adequately monitored and supervised. It is common knowledge that these staff now expect to be bribed in return for permission to enter the UK and view their foreign posting as a chance to acquire the wealth that their talents could never earn.

Fourthly the NHS should ration health services to non-EU and non-British citizens to emergency service only unless they are working and paying into the NI fund.

As the money and benefits dry up, many of the free-riders will pick up sticks and make their own way home. Free flights and a few quid pocket-money given out on the plane will tempt others.

Harsh? Maybe. But remember that 1m free-riders consuming £10k of benefits / services a year each is a tax bill of £10bn a year for the rest of us. That's four times the cost of the 10p tax rate rebate.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

Government policy increases extreme weather risk

OK, the arboreal defaecation habits of Ursidae may be more astonishing, but it's sometimes worth stating the bleedin' obvious.

The costs of extreme weather events have been rising exponentially over the past few decades. Partly this is due to there being more Extreme Weather because of climate change, but it's also due to changing living patterns, population increase, increased global asset values and increased vulnerabilities of modern technologies and environments. Societies can't do much about climate change, but steps to mitigate risk by changing development patterns and behaviours are within their power. Here in the UK government policy has been perverse in that not only does it not mitigate the risk of increased costs, it actually works to increase risk.

Not building new towns on flood plains is a start. Not building new towns in areas without enough fresh water would be good policy as well. Not encouraging mass immigration into a region without the sewers, gas or power infrastructure to cope might also be a good idea. If Joseph Bazalgette had been constrained by the Treasury's Green Book rather than the genius of his own vision, London would now be knee-deep in sewage. Building-in resilience with a factor of safety of 7X and a design life of 100 years rather than our modern 1.5X and 25 years might cost more in the short term but may pay dividends in the long term.

Pratchett once remarked that a man dressed in copper armour standing atop a mountain during a thunderstorm shouting "All Gods are bastards!" was tempting fate. He might also find some difficulty in getting life insurance.

Living 100 feet above sea level in a solid Edwardian brick and slate home perhaps I can afford to be just a bit complacent; all my rain and sewage falls down the hill to the new housing estates in the river valleys, where it will now burst through manhole covers and flood homes rather than running into the Thames. But it would be mistaken to be complacent.

The number of failures it would take to get to Cholera, Typhoid, Typhus and Diptheria, to famine and lawlessness, from our present state are growing fewer and the risks greater. The freeze in the new-build housing market in the south-east may actually be a blessing in disguise. London's population not reaching 9m by 2016 may actually be a good thing. And insurers refusing to insure homes built on the flood plain may bring some sense to government policy.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

On bicycles, dogs and genetic birth defects

In Suffolk in the late 19th century the growing population still lived clustered in the villages they had inhabited for centuries. A six-day working week left only Sunday for courting, and as horses were either farm vehicles or the preserve of the rich, the 'courting radius' for the average villager was the distance that a young man could walk there and back with some courting in between. The result, of course, over the centuries, was a shrinking gene pool; the young lady with seven fingers and webbed toes was probably the cousin of the young man with three fingers and elephant ears who was wooing her.

The bicycle changed all that. It tripled the courting radius and over a generation or two not only did Suffolk villagers grow noticeably in height but the unfortunate genetic anomalies began to disappear. By 1914 Suffolk could provide whole battalions of healthy men all with the same number of fingers to be sent abroad to be killed.

Dogs aren't into courting in a big way. A few seconds sniffing each other's bottoms is about all it takes. And they don't really care about incest, either. And this country has a few real idiots who encourage them. The result is a Brahmin class of wheezing, crippled, deformed mutts that can barely crawl to the Cruft's winners podium without cracking a hip. Moves are afoot (apaw?) to change this disgraceful practice.

Public concern is easily accessed on behalf of dogs in the UK; just look at the respective funding levels of the RSPCA and the NSPCC. And that tells you why another very uncomfortable fact is shoved firmly under the carpet - that of inbreeding amongst our Pakistani population cohort.

Of course it's not called inbreeding in polite society; "preferential patrilateral parallel cousin marriage" - in which the boy marries his father's brother's daughter - is the accepted term for the preference of traditional communities in Pakistan. First cousin marriages are not illegal in the UK, and the odd first cousin marriage in a large mixed society does no great harm overall. But within the Pakistani community such first cousin marriages are repeated generation after generation within a biologically tiny gene pool. Some 55% of Pakistanis in the UK are married to their first cousins; in Bradford more than 75% of all marriages amongst Pakistanis are between first cousins. The result is entirely predictable. Despite forming only 1.5% of the UK's population, Pakistanis have 30% of the country's genetic birth defects and unacceptably high levels of infant mortality. This cannot continue.

If we change the rules for dogs but leave the practice unchanged amongst our fellow citizens, what does it say about our values?

Monday, 18 August 2008

Housekeeping: new 'puter

A radically rebuilt old machine has now successfully replaced the slow little Shuttle which can now go back on the boat after I've put its 12V PSU back in. Cor, I'm not used to this blistering speed. Just the email client stuff to reinstall and I can catch up with my email (apols to those to whom I owe a response).

UK is 'most corrupt' developed nation

More embarrassment for Gordon Brown with the news that the UK may be suspended from the OECD's 37-member anti bribery group when it next meets in October. It's not just the BAE-Saudi deal that in question - and I'm personally equivocal on this - but on our endemic failure to tackle major corporate bribery and corruption.

Now this nation has a proud tradition of buccaneers and warrior-merchants, audacious men who broke the rules to achieve personal wealth and economic advantage for the nation; from Drake to Rhodes such men have bestrode the globe and a little bribing of corrupt foreigners was no more than oiling the wheels of trade. So we shouldn't be all holy and prissy about this. But those days were before globalisation, and things have changed.

Just as the international mobility of capital means that the wealthy want their libel cases heard in Britain but their divorces in America, so firms will shift their operations to take advantage of local laxity in legal areas that provide competitive advantage. Firms that do business by corruptly enriching the buying decision-makers of less transparent nations will find advantage in locating in Britain. And this is what is bugging the OECD.

The FT reports:

The letter attacked Britain over its failure to bring a single overseas bribery case or to deliver on a years-old pledge to update its anti-corruption laws. It also raised concerns that the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) would downgrade its commitment to tackling corporate foreign bribery, because of plans for it to focus more on public education and consumer crimes such as share scams.

The letter was approved by all the anti-bribery group’s 37 members except Britain, people familiar with its contents said. Those members include the US, Japan and Europe’s leading economies. Anti-corruption campaigners and lawyers say Britain has fallen behind other previously poorly-performing nations such as France and Germany, which have launched investigations into leading companies such as Siemens and Alstom, the engineering groups.

The US has brought dozens of corruption cases over the past 30 years and companies under investigation include Halliburton, the oil services group formerly headed by Dick Cheney, the vice-president.

British campaigners say the undoubted commitment of some anti-corruption investigators is being neutered by archaic laws and a lack of political will to pursue cases that – as with BAE – are seen as potentially damaging to British strategic and commercial interests. The OECD anti-bribery group’s October meeting will review the results of a probe it launched last year into London’s efforts to tackle corruption, after the scrapping of the BAE-Saudi probe in 2006 caused an international outcry.

The BAE case aside, I think there's a case to answer. An international reputation for a tolerance of corporate corruption cannot be in the UK's long term interest. The probity of our merchant laws and courts is at the heart of the trust that is essential for business to thrive. Labour's laxity in this area, perhaps not unexpected in a party that has indulged itself in the most shameful decade of political corruption in over a century, must be rectified.

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Cold War reprised

I grew up in the front line of the Cold War and it was no picnic.

I wonder sometimes how I could explain to my Godson the claustrophobic helplessness of those days. The skies of Suffolk were constantly crowded with hectic warplanes all seemingly flying at 250'; the scream of jet engines overhead barely merited a glance, just a corner-of-the-eye confirmation of the V-tail of a Phantom, or the stubby A10. The Hercs were unmistakeable. The stink of burnt Kerosene lay like a heavy fug in the valleys. It was, I suppose, like living at the end of the Heathrow flight path, but without the quiet, fuel-efficient engines and double glazing. Great convoys of heavy drab-green trucks trundled through the B roads in the still of night, carrying, we presumed, nuclear ordnance. Airfields, fuel and munitions dumps, chain link and barbed wire compounds covered the County, and tens of thousands of strange but unexotic Americans walked our village streets in uniforms as familiar as a plod's Serge tunic.

Behind the impenetrable Iron Curtain, we were told, lay slave camps and a brutalised and cowed people barely kept from starvation by Canadian wheat. There was no internet, just the papers and magazines. Sometimes late at night, in the dark safety of bed, I'd tune the shortwave transistor to Radio Moscow and I remember perfectly the beautiful and haunting 'Moscow Nights' station ident; my head may have marched to the BBC's Lili Bolero, but my heart ached to Moscow Nights and for a rapprochement with those strange soulful people.

The annihilation we faced then was not the slow and distant uncertainty of climate change or bird flu, but the sudden disruption of a massive nuclear strike. Each minor escalation in tension could have been the one. Changes in politburo membership were such times of uncertainty that even schoolboys knew and recognised the 'ghastly old waxworks' that lined Lenin's tomb for the May Day Parade.

It was no picnic, and I wouldn't for anything wish a repeat of it on the generation that came after, yet I'm no fuddled disarmer or unilateralist. I wish I could say the same for Labour; the shadow of Michael Foot and Bruce Kent hangs still over ZNL, and part-time Defence Secretary Des Browne does nothing to reassure me that he has the slightest concept of preparedness. There's still something deeply rotten in Labour's core; even at the height of the Cold War when the nation was uniquely vulnerable we never had 42 day detention, ID cards or the repressive State that ZNL have constructed around themselves. They fear the threat from within. The real threat, as it has always done, still lays without.