Thursday, June 30, 2011

today : Public apples/Private oranges

I've heard a ton of guff about the fact that public sector workers should have the same kind of pension and salary cuts etc as many in the private sector have already suffered.

As usual, the people who trumpet this nonsense are driven by ideology. They use their bogus arguments always to shadow their real intentions. Do we want a race to the bottom? It seems that they do. They always, remember, start from a standpoint of hating the public sector. After all - those who are generally making and promoting these policies and ideas don't need public education, health, transport etc, as they are very very rich. Public services are there for the little people and from inside our gated communities and behind the tinted windows of our Maybacks, we try not to have anything to do with them, never mind caring what they think or how they live. Remember, if the economy does well or badly we set the system up so we cannot lose. We bet on either or both outcomes so even if our game-fixing somehow doesn't work, we still cash in.

The difference with the public sector is that people join it knowing, not that they will be paid poorly, as wages themselves are often equivalent, but knowing that there is a limit to their advancement. They trade-off job security and a secure pension for the limited opportunities to earn big money.

The private sector has no theoretical limits, and operates on a simple risk and reward basis. If you want to become a multi-millionaire or billionaire then you can. But if you are a nurse or an ambulance driver or a teacher then you settle for some level of comfort and security (perhaps also a measure of altruistic fulfilment) in return for abandoning such limitless ambition.

Of course, this necessitates a structure within which complacency can flourish. I strongly agree that public sector institutions need to tighten up and be more efficient - somewhat more connected to the real world than they often are. I've worked in the public sector most of my adult life and seen some horrendous incompetence and profligacy - health administrators ordering taxis to travel half a mile and paying people to polish and water the office plants and schools that in difficult places, make no effort or spend pots of cash on inappropriate schemes and initiatives that only exist to look good on a manager's CV. Example : the deputy head-teacher who uses the school to pay for their Headship qualifications whilst doing as little as possible in their actual primary job, the new head who buys 300 computers without backing them up with maintenance contracts or staff and student training, or school that spends a lot of time, effort and money in manipulating the league tables rather than spending similar time effort and money on getting their results legitmately by actually teaching the pupils.

Sometimes, in the case of the schools and health especially, organisations and institutions have to be, what would be called in the private sector, loss-making. You have to give chemotherapy to a frail elderly person or weak and damaged baby, despite their percentage chance of survival. In the private sector that would be seen as throwing good money after bad. In education, you cannot give up on a single child. Let's also remember that, as we are reminded too rarely, that the school system is first and foremost a 'free' nationalised childcare facility. You can't just shut the thing down without a huge knock-on. But in the private sector a school that shows no improvement in results and seemingly shows no return for any investment would be gone in a heartbeat.

It is fine to try and improve the less efficient aspects of public services, but fundamentally I believe that a modern, decent society should show them (and more importantly the servants themselves) a healthy measure of respect. Using public servants as an easy target for cuts, seeding the press with stories that fuel jealousy and anger and making bogus comparisons with some mythical private sector is the opposite of this.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

today : bad apples

ipads are stupid and I hate them. Actually I don't hate them at all really. And they are also undeniably a miraculously clever invention. They are another example of how actual things are now seemingly outstripping the sci-fi predictions of my youth.

But watching Sky News in the past couple of weeks has made me notice something. What are stupid and hateful are the people who wave their
ipads around, showing them off. One or two of the presenters on Sky do this during the late-night paper review. Obviously they have a new thing where tomorrows front pages are now stored on an iPad, connected to the screen behind them. As they move through the stories and discuss them with whichever guest (they have pretty good guests most nights), they can control what appears by using their iPad rather than having some technical boffin in the gantry do it for them. I guess the presenters have all been given a shiny iPad. Some of them can't help but blatantly angle them towards the camera and make very obvious iPaddy gestures. Sometimes when they are scrolling or resizing a picture the camera gives us a close up of fingers on screen. They might as well have a t-shirt that says 'iPad Owners Club' on the front.

The same thing happened with the F1 coverage on the
Beeb last year. That guy who's like a Blue Peter presenter who presents it, insisted on walking around with his iPad on show, until a certain point arrived when, either he realised that it looked stupid and childish, or someone from the Beeb got nervous about product placement and confiscated it.

I've seen this a lot in the past. I was a teacher during the original rise of the mobile phone and most children, upon getting one, would find any excuse to wave it around and show off. I expect this from children, but when the
iphone appeared this behaviour broke out among adults too. Any visit to the supermarket or a coffee shop meant negotiating people pointlessly waving their iphones around whilst clogging up the town. Notice how they never call it a phone, but make sure they use the word iphone. It's a phone, and tell me how many of the hundreds of 'apps' on yours you actually use regularly, and how many are sitting there - 99p wasted? Apps are the new ringtones. Eventually people grew up and realised that variations on the sound of a phone ringing was quite adequate enough thank-you.

It's clever of Apple to harness this childish impulse towards one-
upmanship. Coupled with the quasi-cult religion behaviour amongst Apple fans, it puts almost a mystical air around their machines. This I can kind of get. The machines themselves are pretty brilliant and unbelievable expressions of technology. But I personally am baffled by the shots of gawky bespectacled boys sleeping on pavements in order to be the first to pick up a new Apple gizmo. What's the point in having 'face-time' in your pocket when you don't have an awful lot of real friends?

I'm stereotyping nerds, of course. Which is unfair. But actually, nerds aren't the issue. They'll always go for the next latest gadget and endlessly discuss it with other nerds. No problem for the rest of us, and possibly an essential part of the leaps forward technology is making in recent years. The problem is the try-
hards, the self nominated fashionable and cool people. Because all this boils down to what's considered cool.

Like the Apprentice style business-suited woman in front of me in the queue for cigarettes today in the supermarket. Shouting into her
iphone like Dom Joly's mobile phone man, I noticed she mentioned the fact that she was using an iphone twice to the person on the other end. Unless it was being conducted in code and she was some kind of Anna Chapman figure, the rest of the conversation did not seem to be of any consequence. At the counter she put her phone onto speaker, placed her iphone on the counter ("I'm putting my iphone onto speaker") and continued to shout at it whilst she bought a single can of Red Bull and paid for it using a credit card. Everyone in the queue crossed their arms and tapped their fingers as she continued to juggle the conversation, entering her pin number and putting her card back into her bag. Finally she finished and I quickly bought my cigarettes. On the way out I passed her. She was now standing still talking into her phone.
"Okay, see you in two minutes. I'm heading back to the office now." she said.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

today : Greece is the word

You can't blame the greeks for rioting and getting upset (it reminds me of the old joke 'What's a Grecian Urn? Answer: these days not much at all"). After all, they didn't really do anything wrong. This is almost always the case with the population of a country. In the UK public service workers are facing slash and burn cuts to their pensions (although this is an ideological thing that also happens to help cut public debt - like all the Tories' policies. They are driven by ideology first and any notion of national interest second).

There are two ways that people and nations get into unmanageable debt. The first is if they behave fraudulently. But the main one is when they behave like sub-prime shopaholics. Speculative lenders continue lending to them - which they seem to often do even when the sums don't add up and the loan is more risky than becoming Spinal Tap's new drummer. Of course, in recent years the lenders convinced themselves that credit default swaps abolished risk, so they simply ignored the sums.

One wonders, why they continue to hurl money at obvious bubbles and economies that are on ther brink of collapse? It's not like it's a new phenomenon.

S'funny, but when it all goes wrong, as it repeatedly does, I am not seeing many lenders taking the hit. Their hair remains resolutely lengthy. It's always the lendee who loses. In the case of countries, it's the taxpayer: always the taxpayer (never the tax avoider who shelters their assets offshore and has a team of people from accenture to minimise 'liability').

The super-rich speculative lenders know this. They know that when it all goes mammary-skyward, the IMF will come along and do their bidding. The first people to get paid are always the super-rich. God forbid if they should actually ever lose out, so they skew the system to keep themselves rich, even whilst convincing themselves (or trying to convince the rest of us) that the market is 'free'. It is the belief that they are secure and living above risk that feeds the frenzy that inevitably creates bubbles in property and stocks, dragging the rest of us poor saps along. The super-rich feel that they are entitled to make more money out of any given situation, however dire. Hence the fact that the investment banks bet on their own failure in 2007/8.

Meanwhile the little people - you and I, dear reader - are squeezed like the lemons in a Wimbledon debenture holder's Pimms. Why are we paying more for food and fuel? Well, rather a lot of money was 'printed' to keep the system flowing i.e. to help the speculators keep their money-making schemes afloat (a bit like the house advancing credit to a rouletteer whose luck is about to turn, honest). The speculators had killed their preferred equities and property markets as money-making prospects, so they instead looked at the commodities markets. They took their free money (as kindly handed out by treasuries and central banks) and started to gamble it in wheat, oil, macadamia nuts and, I guess, pickled onions, precious metals and Stinking Bishop. It created a bit of a bubble, not dissimilar to footballers wages and transfer fees. Commodities are now overpriced, which means less for more for the rest of us and a consequent push back towards recession, which will lead in turn to more over-leveraged governments struggling to pay their bills as their welfare tab goes up and their tax-take goes down. In the meantime the super-rich will take their free money and start attacking weak currencies, which will further push countries towards bankruptcy by doing things like making oil really expensive. They'll also use the money that the governments gave them to lend back to the governments at an inflated rate of interest (wasn't it specifically the money lenders that Jesus threw out of the temple?).

But none of this will matter. Many speculators still believe that all they have to do is off-set their risk by using the magic of their own genius made up sums.

And even if they get it wrong and end up in trouble they know that the systems of 'rescue' are not there to rescue countries and their people, but always to rescue the wealthy investors' money.

The job of the rich is to stay rich and get richer. Everything they do is towards this end. They spend some of their money making sure the law is there to support their aims by strongly influencing (incentivising politicians with campaign donations, the possibility of negative media coverage etc) governments to skew the rules.

This is why there will be a bailout of Greece, as there have been in Ireland and in the past some of the Tiger economies where a trumpeted economic miracle fell flat on its arse. If Greece does default, it is not really the Euro that will be a problem - Greece will have to revert and everyone else will carry on with the single currency project. What would be the problem is that all the gambling investors would lose their money. And that simply wouldn't do. So the not-so-rich taxpayers of Greece and the rest of the Eurozone will cough up, as they always do, to make sure the rich remain rich.

A cynic might see it as a legitimate tactic. A couple of Davos summits later and the super-wealthy get a guaranteed payback from the poor, and as a condition of not going bankrupt Greece (or whatever country) has to privatise its publically owned assets - by selling them to... the rich. Taking things ostensibly owned and controlled by the average citizens and placing them in the hands of a wealthy few. Shock horror.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

If I talk about fuel prices, and the fact that they are insanely high, I am aware that I am probably nailing a moment in history. Looking back in a few years time, it's inevitable that the outrageous 75 quid a tank will seem laughably cheap. Or maybe we'll look back in nostalgia at the time when when cars still required petrol.

I would have liked to get an electric or a hybrid vehicle this time. But the backward looking inertia of the motor corporations mean that they are still specialist vehicles with specialist price tags. Did they not employ people a decade -two decades- ago to develop the future? Everyone knows that in business the secret is to be ahead of the game, and it's been clear for ages now that a petrol driven future is untenable. At the moment it looks like Honda might clean up with hydrogen (I am surprised Apple are not working on it - they could brand it as i-drogen) : providing that the other manufacturers don't gang together and kill their progress by any means necessary. Car companies seem always to have been resistant to innovation, even when it would clearly benefit them and their customers. Just watch that film 'Tucker'. Their default setting seems to be stuck in 'No We Can't'.

I've talked about this several times, but my new car was delivered yesterday. I was sitting in the showroom waiting for the handover and felt like I'd been whisked backwards in time to an era where CD players and mobile phones are cutting edge inventions, where air conditioning has only just been introduced as an experimental technology and electric motors to magically move the windows up and down cause the disbelieving public to behave like dogs do, when they sniff behind the TV screen trying to find the distant pooches they've just seen in the magic window. All the cars had stickers and posters declaring stuff like '4 wheels! Brakes! Lights! Windows front back AND sides!

Which is annoying but no big deal. So what if I don't have electric windows front and back, or I have to buy a phone holder as an extra?

But having no choice other than to help pollute the air and negatively impact the climate: that's not fair. I know the technology exists to make electric or hybrid vehicles. Even if it's not quite developed, I know that they've been lazy and pathetic about seeing into the future and it could have been here now.

I could walk, you might say. But disability disbars me from taking alternatives. Can't pedal a bike, can't walk to the station or to and from the bus stop. Plus the fact that I like having a car. Even when I could walk I liked the freedom of choice and movement it gave me. I liked driving along with the stereo blaring. But if I am to own a car what choice do I have but to add my helpful contribution to the rates of childhood asthma and rising sea levels? To line the pockets of the petroleum billionaires and play my part in the global war games over oil. To be a tiny cog in the machine that perpetrated genocide on the wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico?

I am looking at Germany and seeing a possible model for the future. Okay, so their brave decision to shun nuclear is a combination of paranoia over safety, historical resistance (I have a sticker on my guitar case from the 1980s that says 'atomkraft nein danke!'), coalition politicking and electoral populism. But if they can cut out nuclear energy in the timescales they want, then it will set a benchmark for proactive decision making that forces an issue. I hope Germany will be become a hothouse of alternative energy supply that can set an example to the rest of the world.

The same could and should happen in the motor industry. If one single big company like Honda or Toyota switched to making only electric or hybrid vehicles, they would clean up every customer who wants to do their bit and assuage their conscience.

And it would tip the market into the future. Sometimes it needs someone to stand up and declare that the emperor's clothes are falling off.