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Saturday, 8 October 2011

Waste. It's what we do.

If anyone doesn't know what a BBC live broadcast involves, take a walk down Bedfordbury, the lane at the rear of the London Coliseum, regularly. There's the artic with the van-sized generator to power the tape recorder, two huge BBC 'control' pantechnicons that look as if you wouldn't get much change from a million if you wanted to buy one, then two or three other large trucks, and thick snakes and ropes of cables like fire hoses connecting everything together. Inside they've got the stage and orchestra pit rigged up with mics so sensitive that they can pick up whether the second violin is breathing through his nose or not, and the PR people have found a chair-scraper and a throat-clearer in the audience and they too have been wired with mics, to be faded-up just as the first chord sounds. Every single little nano-hertz of pitch and range, every micro-decibel of distant roof echo is captured. Then they broadcast it on muddy, low-quality digital radio to people in cars whose speakers cost 60p from China. 

So when, in relation to making cuts, the BBC choose to broadcast fewer R3 live concerts (hurting the listener) rather than changing the archaic way in which they operate you know they really haven't got the message. If Sky Classic (say) got the job, they'd service it with a transit van and two blokes, and the audible result would be indistinguishable from the BBC's broadcast output. 

Norwich line index moves back to Colchester

Back in the halcyon days of cheap rail fares, the equation of London mortgage vs. Suffolk mortgage plus annual season pushed the commuting limit on the Norwich line up as far as Diss, and all along the route house prices rose right up to the crash of 2008. Since then, London house prices have thrived while Suffolk stays in the doldrums. And what's worse, the above-inflation series of rail fare increases, with a real budget busting increase to come in January, will tip the equation even further the other way.

The balance point has now moved back to Colchester - about where things were in 1978, before electrification. To make Suffolk a more attractive place for London workers, either Suffolk house prices must fall further in real terms, rail fares must fall in real terms, or London house prices must race even further ahead. 

Of course not everyone in Suffolk is unhappy that the county is becoming less attractive to incomers ...

Silver guineas and copper shillings

Silver is currently about £21 a troy ounce - £252 per troy pound. That makes a silver penny - 1/240th of a pound - worth about £1.05, or in old terms, a guinea. If the world goes into financial meltdown and paper currency as valuable as woodpulp, we may yet still see silver and copper making a comeback. The old penny was 9.4g - and with copper prices at about £5/kg worth nearly 5p - or a shilling in old money. 240 copper pennies are worth £11.28, not far off the metal price of 10 silver guineas.

Oh well, I'm sure we'll work it all out if it happens, and the youngsters will have to get used to £4-10/6d and suchlike. 

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Fantasy politics

There is a sort of cosy, rather smug and introverted political coterie living in a fantasy world of political gossip and rumour, a lot of labrador-like wriggling with pleasure at name and face recognition, and an utter and complete disconnect with the world the rest of us live in. During conference season this lot are in seventh heaven. They all have more in common with each other than with the rest of us. The wrist-flapping twittering jejune excitement - "The shadow junior fisheries minister has just bought a fairy cake! It was yellow!" - is the same (one imagines) at pertains at a Star Trek groupies conference when Leonard Nimoy is spotted in the foyer. 

Outside the fantasy world of the conference halls, where no one gives a shit about the shape of the starfleet sash worn in series IV, or how the fantasy chancellor will spend non-existent money in the fantasy future, the real Britain is fast becoming a bleak and desperate place. This week I experienced the most pathetically inept attempt at pickpocketing you can imagine; as I stepped back and frowned in admonishment at the respectably dressed 30-something Afro-Carib lady whose fingers had tried to enter my jacket pocket she was deeply embarrassed and fled. Clearly not her usual occupation. Ticket and shop counters resound to the arguments of the poor trying to get refunds or exchanges and they are often the victims of each other. The newly-arrived African woman who had bought from a station tout a used travelcard that was actually just the receipt portion that someone had left in the machine and was crying at the penalty fare being imposed; the Addison-Lee wall mounted ashtrays hanging broken-open all over the city as the desperate lever them open to get at the dog ends, and the small joints of meat in the local Tesco now all routinely security-tagged all tell the tale of growing financial pain and desperation a million miles away from the twee fantasy world of the political class. 

Richard North has his finger close to the pulse and is aware of the danger. Quentin Letts wrote about it yesterday. Today in the Guardian even John Harris knows it. He writes;
The murky id of the Conservative party is defined by those ideas, but parts of Labour are surprisingly open to a similar approach. On left and right, politicians who fear that kind of future should realise the urgency of the moment. Politics needs new ideas, language and voices. The bubble that has defined the past three weeks must be burst – before it's far, far too late.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

A bit of a do for the commercial gents

Quentin Letts captures the vacuity and pointlessness of the party conference season in the Mail today; instead of a plenum for party members to evolve policy, the conference has become a bit of a do for the commercial gents, with alcohol awash;
There are the trade bodies, the professions’ alliances, the Private Finance Initiative companies. There are the privatised utilities, the more go-ahead charities or “Third Sector” as they demand to be called, and then the foreign observers. A few would-be parliamentary candidates attend, agreeing madly with everyone they meet. But for the most part, as figures from the website this week showed, the conference-goers are what we might loosely call “trade”: suited smoothies who press business cards into the palms of passers-by, dispensing trinkets, sweet-meats and whispers that “we must do lunch”.
With fewer than 1% of the UK electorate being members of any of the three big parties they have become so disconnected from the ordinary voter that they survive only through funding from the corporates; remote, metropolitan, Statist and exclusive, these private clubs will nevertheless make a case this Autumn for stealing even more tax money to prop-up their bankrupt structures. Quentin Letts has seen the reality, and it's not pretty;
This conference season I stood in one drinks party and looked across a large room in which perhaps 400 people were gathered. It included some of the most senior politicians in the land. The fug was fetid with alcohol, sweat, self-serving gossip and ambition. The TV cameras might once have captured the scene but they were banned. If the electors of Britain had seen that room, I seriously doubt they would have voted for any of these parties again.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Corporations are the barrier to growth

Globalisation and the increased economic role of transnational corporations have trashed classical economic theory. Not only are the corporations and their central Statist allies the enemy of that laissez-faire capitalism that once defined Conservatism, but their distortion of the laws of supply and demand also frustrates national economic policy measures. As Edward Nell wrote;
An economy of family firms and family farms might once have functioned like an Idealized Free Market. But the modern system of corporate industry does not. It behaves differently in regard both to output and employment and to pricing: output and employment are adjusted to current sales, but prices are planned with an eye to the financing of investment, so are governed by long-term considerations, and tend to be unresponsive to shot term changes. So, the automatic and anonymous rule of supply and demand in the market came to be replaced by a form of private administration.
And when the corporation's decision span covers the globe, when capital flows internationally, individual governments are about as powerless to stimulate their national growth as an entrepreneurial new fruit-stall. Or perhaps less so. 

Our instinct is that an apple bought from a street trader has a greater multiplier effect in the economy than an apple bought from Tesco, that the change in the endogenous variable is greater given the same exogenous variable. Our instinct may be correct; I'd be interested in pointers to econometric research on this. And if this is the case, the answer to economic growth may lie in maximising the multiplier effect of the internal economy, as clearly the corporate - government complex will not answer, despite Dave's brave words. Discuss. 

Monday, 3 October 2011

It's Europe, of course

The news that Greece will fail to meet the troika targets yet again takes us into October and gives the lie to my prediction early in the year that it would all be over by September. The problem isn't that the Greek economy isn't dead - it is as deceased as a Norwegian Blue - but like a ham actor, she's stringing out the moment of passing, with the IMF and EU nailing her feet to the perch. 

The Conservatives' strategy on Europe is to avoid the subject altogether wherever possible, or talk tough with fantasy pronouncements. As a fellow blogger has commented, the lights are going out all over Europe and the subject for debate at Conference is plastic shopping bags. 

Cameron is no Statesman, Brown was actually a kind of anti-Statesman and Blair's image of himself as a Statesman was shared by no-one else. Neither have we been well served by Foreign Secretaries. For nearly fourteen years we've been fielding the reserve team on the diplomatic stage. Our foreign policy weakness is palpable, and with no clear analysis of the nation's interests and no foreign policy focus we drift with the Euro current hoping like Mr Micawber that something will turn up tomorrow. 

An in-out referendum on Europe is not the answer; the public's appreciation of the issues is far more subtle than this. We are part of Europe, we want free trade and open borders for Englishmen but not for poor Europeans in the other direction. We want the EU off our backs and the power to decide our own laws; we want an end to the EU's tax levy, an end to the EU diplomatic service, an end to the interference of the European courts and of course nothing at all to do with a European currency. You don't need a referendum to formulate and put into effect a foreign policy strategy based on the above; you just need a modicum of leadership and Statesmanship from the government.  

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Worth a try ...

Mr Rick Glankler
Senior Vice President Global Brand Management - Thomas
HiT Entertainment
230 Park Ave South
13th Floor
New York, NY 10003

Dear Mr Glankler

Thomas the Tank Engine - the Fat Controller

Please accept my congratulations on HiT's latest venture in appointing Shane Acker and a talented production team to re-imagine the core characters of 'Thomas the Tank Engine' in a next generation fantasy adventure film franchise, as reported in the trade press. 

I write in particular about changes we recommend you make to the character of the Fat Controller. Obesity, as you will be aware, is the new disease of the Western world, with an increase in type II diabetes alone of over 300% in the continental United States. As the character stands, it communicates the clear and perverse message that the route to executive success is being overweight. Surely a responsible production company like HiT needs to make clear that only Height and Weight Proportionate (HaWP) executives are likely in real life to achieve promotion, enjoy an active life and be happy. I therefore suggest the character is renamed the Fit Controller and is depicted undertaking aerobic exercise, eating salads and greenstuffs perhaps including cabbage and drinking bottled mineral water and yoghurt smoothies. You may even consider an episode in which he out-runs an unfit engine. The Top Hat is also clearly anachronistic in this day and age and I suggest the Fit Controller is in future shown  in a baseball cap; if it's good enough for President Bush, it's good enough for a transport industry executive. 

Again wishing you all the best with the re-imaging of this rather dated product

Raedwald Uffinga
Cabbages for Life

No obituary yet for politics

In a seminal essay back in 1969, published in Playboy, at that time a publication of some intellectual and literary weight illustrated with photographs of naked women, Karl Hess announced the Death of Politics. Like Fukuyama's misjudged pronounciation of the End of History in 1989, it was premature. History and politics both roll on, inseparable adjuncts of the nature of human society, and will continue to do so whether or not the current Party political structures in the UK survive into the next decade. The lacklustre and irrelevant pantomimes of the Party conferences suggest the end may be near, but as yet there is no clear alternative forming in the mists. 

The revolution of the 1960s has been described as a failure for anarcho-libertarian laisez-faire capitalism; the old forms emerged, authoritarian, corporatist central Statism looked like it had won. I'm not so sure. Just as John the Baptist emerged  "to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" so the 1960s set out out the agenda for a future political change; the Baptist was not the Messiah, nor the 60s the Revolution. Hess was remarkably prescient in a number of areas; on corporatism:-
Big business in America today and for some years has been openly at war with competition and, thus, at war with laissez-faire capitalism. Big business supports a form of state capitalism in which government and big business act as partners. Criticism of this statist bent of big business comes more often from the left than from the right these days, and this is another factor making it difficult to tell the players apart. John Kenneth Galbraith, for instance, has most recently taken big business to task for its anticompetitive mentality. The right, meantime, blissfully defends big business as though it had not, in fact, become just the sort of bureaucratic, authoritarian force that rightists reflexively attack when it is governmental.
The left's attack on corporate capitalism is, when examined, an attack on economic forms possible only in collusion between authoritarian government and bureaucratized, nonentrepreneurial business. It is unfortunate that many New Leftists are so uncritical as to accept this premise as indicating that all forms of capitalism are bad, so that full state ownership is the only alternative. This thinking has its mirror image on the right.
And this remarkable observation on Watts that could equally well apply to London 2011-
Riots in modern America must be broken down into component parts. They are not all simple looting and violence against life and property. They are also directed against the prevailing violence of the state — the sort of ongoing civic violence that permits regular police supervision of everyday life in some neighborhoods, the rules and regulations that inhibit absolutely free trading, the public schools that serve the visions of bureaucracy rather than the varieties of individual people. There is violence also by those who simply want to shoot their way into political power otherwise denied them. Conservatives seem to think that greater state police power is the answer. Liberals seem to think that more preferential state welfare power is the answer. Power, power, power.
Except for ordinary looters — for whom the answer must be to stop them as you would any other thief — the real answer to rioting must lie elsewhere. It must lie in the abandonment, not the extension, of state power — state power that oppresses people, state power that tempts people. To cite one strong example: The white stores in many black neighborhoods, which are said to cause such dissatisfaction and envy, have a special unrealized advantage thanks to state power. In a very poor neighborhood there may be many with the natural ability to open a retail store, but it is much less likely that these people would also have the ability to meet all the state and city regulations, governing everything from cleanliness to bookkeeping, which very often comprise the marginal difference between going into business or staying out. In a real laissez-faire society, the local entrepreneur, with whom the neighbors might prefer to deal, could go openly into business — selling marijuana, whiskey, numbers, slips, books, food or medical advice from the trunk of his car. He could forget about ledgers, forms and reports and simply get on with the business of business, rather than the business of bureaucracy. Allowing ghetto dwellers to compete on their own terms, rather than someone else's, should prove a more satisfying and practical solution to ghetto problems than either rampages or restrictions.
Don't expect changes to be sudden or dramatic. Look at how things are changing in Greece, in which the reaction of the people to the overbearing intrusion of the State is simply to eschew the State, finding ways of trading and exchanging that avoid tax, and simply ignoring the abjurations of the State. Remember that the exercise of all authority must be consensual as it applies to the majority; coercive authority can only be exercised upon a deviant minority. Once the majority reject the authority of the State, it's as dead as a Dodo, a hollow vessel, a paper tiger. 

Let's hope the UK meets the challenge creatively not destructfully, and that in all the mess we don't forget the works of mercy and our obligations to each other.