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Saturday, 15 January 2011

Back to economics 101

Amongst the first things you will have learned during elementary economics is the difference between real and nominal interest rates. If inflation is 5% and you're getting 6% interest on your savings, the real interest is a measly 1%. If inflation is 5% and you're getting 2.5%, you're losing money and would be better off taking your money out of the bank and spending it on something. The forthcoming rise in interest rates is being trumpeted as 'good news for savers'. Unless inflation falls, of course, it will be nothing of the sort. 

At the top end, 'smart' money can invest in fine wines or art to beat inflation, but what for Mr Ordinary? Property used to offer a safe bet, but predictions are now for a further 10% fall from current values over the next 12 months. With inflation at 5%, that's a 15% drop in real asset value. 

A rise in interest rates will also be the catalyst for earnings growth. Wage rises have been held down for the past two years (except for the fat cats at the top, who saw their wedge rise by 55% last year) as the interest rate has lingered near zero, but this won't continue. The only thing the government can do to forestall wage inflation is to cut tax. And this is the bold stroke I urge upon the Cameron government; a full 3% cut in employee's NI and a 2% cut in employer's contributions from April. If Cameron dithers, he's inviting a perfect political Hell for the coalition in 2011, with high and rising unemployment, repossessions, bankruptcies and commercial property joining residential in a nosedive. Does he have the balls?

Friday, 14 January 2011

Getting to know Porto

One of the joys of being a traveller rather than a tourist is getting under the skin of a place, and although I'm doing it in brief instalments, I'm really rather pleased with the way in which Porto is revealing itself. Last time I concentrated on the ancient waterfront; this time it was a student / working class district to the West of the tourist centre. One thing struck me here; although at street level there was a lively parade of very small, very specialist shops, the accommodation above them was in many cases derelict - huge swathes of 17th -19th century buildings utterly unoccupied. The clustering of specialisms would have delighted Adam Smith. This was an an area of traders supplying tools, parts and equipment, but in a way rarely seen. Here was a small 10' wide shop specialising in just castors, with an intricate window display of mesmeric patterns of every type of castor one can imagine. Here a shop for scissors and barber's tools - again, 300 types of scissor displayed with pride, and here a shop for chisels, likewise. There were dozens of such specialist outlets clustered on just two or three narrow streets.  

Around the Rua Do Bonjardin are the pork burchers; I was damn tempted to bring back half an air-cured smoked pigs head, a poor man's Parma Ham and probably just as tasty at a fraction of the price. Raw Pigs are also sold in large pieces, joints ready for home-curing like an entire leg, as well as the smaller cuts that are all we know here. Butcher's Row leads into Fish Street - and fish in Porto means salt cod. I counted eight shops all competing in selling this Portuguese delicacy within 100m - and of the half dozen varieties available, took a certain pride that 'Ingles' cod was the highest valued. Cheese and Charcuterie shops nestle close by in a perfect foodie heaven of prime ingredients.

I also accidentally discovered a small parade of brothels in a decaying terrace conveniently behind City Hall; my slow wandering with gaze fixed on the extraordinarily pretty Majoilica-tiled upper stories of these houses was clocked by a couple of the working girls, who although no doubt unaccustomed to customers at 9 in the morning, felt duty bound to come out to enquire as to my needs. They didn't seem too disappointed, though, when I declined their offers, leading me to suppose they'd encountered English architectural historians before. 

This city is starting to grow on me. .  

Oh. It was warm and sunny. 

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Banks are a bigger threat than Socialists

To paraphrase GK Chesterton, the problem with banking is not that there are too many bankers, but that there are too few. Chesterton struggled to define a via media that would prove a viable alternative to both the redistributionism of Socialism and the plutarchy of big corporate capitalism. If Chesterton lived today, his excoriation of the banks would be blisteringly white-hot; the duty of society's institutions should be to serve the interests of that society, based on the unit of the family, on horizontal ties that bind family, neighbourhood and community, on Burke's 'little platoons', those local institutions that give us belonging. Multinational corporates driven purely by greed, with no responsibility to the people they exploit, were anathema to Chesterton. His middle way wouldn't abandon Usury, like the Socialists would, but tame it. Credit Unions, Industrial and Provident Societies, Mutuals and Co-Operatives were the alternatives Chesterton favoured, with roots deep in the communities and amongst the people they served, subservient to local interests, and by Burkean progression, to the national interest. 

Chesterton's beliefs were based on profoundly Christian, and specifically Catholic doctrine. His was the age in which not only did Rerum Novarum (frequently featured on this blog) condemn Socialism as anti-Christian, but likewise condemned unconstrained corporate capitalism, in Quadragesimo Anno;  "Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do" and "every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them". 

Socialism is no longer the greatest threat to this nation; the banks are. They support central Statism, because this is the system that suits their interests best. They support the EU, because trans-national governance is in their interests. They favour central economic planning, a high State stake in the economy, and the levers of economic control through tax and investment being manipulated at national level. They are, in other words, profoundly anti-Localist and a profound obstacle to subsidiarity. 

And if you think I'm being a little un-Conservative, well, Chesterton had something to say on that as well;
The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.

Monday, 10 January 2011

What's going on?

Something's up. Today I provided figures for (a) the number of back-hoe loaders with operators I could get hold of at short notice, (b) 7.5 tonne general cargo vehicles ditto and (c) the volume of diesel held in site tanks.


Cradle of Filth

Suffolk tourism bosses got a bit of a surprise when they launched a publicity stunt inviting the public to vote for their top tourist icon in the county; lighthouses, beach huts, theatres, breweries and ruins were all voted for, but the most nominations went to Dani Filth, lead singer in local black metal band Cradle of Filth. 

Dani, whose real name is Kevin Turvey, works as a trainee pigman on the earl of Stradbrook's estate, and in reality likes nothing better than to curl up on the sofa with a can of Abbot and a Chevy Chase DVD, was stunned by the publicity. His 13,000 votes were believed to have been cast by up to seven teenage girls over the school holiday repeatedly clicking on the East Anglian Daily Times' poll page.

Tourism bosses have now boringly launched a finalists list that excludes Dani.

Only some of the above is not true  

The Rape of Aisha

A large part of the protection of younger girls from older predatory boys in traditional British society is the peer derision such relationships would attract; such boys would be loudly and publicly excoriated as 'paedos' and 'nonces'. A white chav lad driving about in an Astra equipped with boom-box, under chassis LEDs and 12 year old girl is simply not cool; he wouldn't last five minutes on the streets of our working class communities. 

So what I really want to know is whether Pakistani boys who 'date' much younger girls are open to the same peer pressure? Or whether the Prophet's betrothal to Aisha when she was nine, and his deflowering of her by the time she was twelve, provides these boys with some sort of moral rationale?

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Twitter didn't shoot Gabby Giffords, nor did the voters

The US has a long history of political violence at times of policy stress, and the shooting of Gabby Giffords is unlikely to halt it. After Lincoln's assassination in 1865, Americans went on to kill 24 of their political officials by 1877, including a senator, two congressmen, three state governors, ten state legislators and eight judges. It was only after President Garfield's assassination in 1881 that this wave of political violence began to subside. More recently from the '60s to early '80s four out of six presidents were targeted by assassins, one successfully and one almost so. And not only Robert Kennedy but George Rockwell, John Lennon, Malcolm X, Medgar Evans and Martin Luther King all met their ends at the assassin's hands. And believe it or not, not one of the assassins of the above had a Twitter account or Facebook page. 

Curiously, Congresswoman Giffords' shooting comes at the same time as Jack Straw's crude attempts to inflame racial hatred in advance of the Oldham by-election. And slightly awkwardly, on the same weekend that the Mail publishes Richard North's piece on why politicians should fear the voters. North writes:

It is my belief that the rot starts at the top. But for answers, you need to go back to the great Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence. 
He saw how the people and their governments should relate, declaring: ‘When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny.’ There lies my conclusion, gained from a lifetime of experience at all levels of government. Our ‘rulers’ have lost their fear.
You have only to go down to the Houses of Parliament or Downing Street to see this. Our masters have retreated behind concrete barricades, blastproof windows, policemen with machine guns, armoured limousines and riot police. The political classes are now a gated community. They feel safe. They are not afraid of us.

Richard isn't advocating assassination of course; he's making the point that the isolation of the political class from our world has resulted in not only protection from physical attack but in the impossibility of getting any of them to take the blame for anything, that they're protected not just from the assassin's bullet but from all public accountability. 

Gabby Giffords was shot by a mentalist. Nearly all US political assassinations have been carried out by mentalists. Only two that I know of - Wilkes Booth who killed Lincoln and the anarchist Czolgosz, who killed McKinley - were ideologically motivated. That mentalists are provoked by the robust political debate around them isn't a reason for stopping robust political debate, but nor is it a reason to insulate the political class from responsibility. And the fact that mentalists now have open access to Twitter, Facebook and YouTube isn't a reason to blame the medium - if anything, the new media are providing an unprecedented early warning of mental instability.  Squaring the circle between protecting those in public office from mentalists whilst exposing them to the wrath of the electorate if they screw up is not going to be without problems, but we must achieve it if our democracy is to remain healthy.  

Don't knock Testino

With apologies for two whimsical posts in a row, it behoves me to share my Damascene conversion in the matter of Mario Testino and his photographic skill. Testino, you may recall, produces flattering if somewhat kitsch and saccharine photographic portraits of the great and good, most recently of Prince William and Miss Middleton. Until this morning, I've held his skill in rather snobbish disregard. But seeing, in one of the mass Sundays still available online, a studio portrait by another unnamed photographer of a winsome young countess who for reasons of delicacy will remain unidentified, I'm now a convert to the absolute need for Testino. The unnamed  photographer has not only deprived the countess of even a hint of decolletage but has emphasised the premature fatty development of the upper arms popularly known as 'bingo wings'. Worst of all, pendulously hanging at the countess' pelvis from the end of her arms are a pair of massive, reddened scullery maid's hands, forming the hideous focus of the picture towards which one's eyes are inextricably drawn. It is perhaps the least flattering studio photograph I have ever seen. Bring on Testino.  

Network Rail's Leylandii Line?

News that the builders plan to line the sides of the new high speed line from London to Birmingham with trees initially brought to mind Napoleon's innovative planting of the Chausse├ęs to provide shade for his marching troops (or to extend the courtesy to the invading Huns, as some cruel wits have it). However, a moment's thought will remind us of that curse of rail operation, 'leaves on the line', which rules out deciduous species. I can only conclude therefore that Network Rail are planning to plant that curse of suburban gardens the Leylandii in two continuous lines half way up the country, not only effectively screening the line but providing passengers customers with an uninterrupted view of nothing but manky dark green-brown foliage during their journey. Only in England.