Tuesday 27 November 2012

New Governor of the Bank

I know little about Mark Carney, the Canadian appointed by George Osborne as the new Governor of the Bank of England, but am disappointed that my own favoured candidate, Adair Turner, has not got the job. I must confess that I don't know much about Lord Turner either, and haven't even read his book, "Economics after the Crisis," on which my preference is based.  But I have read Robert Skidelski's review of it in the Times Literary Supplement (28/09/2012).

In this review Skidelski claims that Turner challenges "the three main planks of 'instrumental conventional wisdom'" viz:-

  • that the chief objective of  economic policy is to maximise GDP per head;
  • that the way to achieve this is to create freer markets;
  • that the resulting increase in inequality is acceptable if it delivers superior growth.
These criticisms are totally consistent with the arguments expressed in this blog and which  in my view ought to underlie Liberal Democrat approaches to economic policy.

To elaborate briefly in support of Lord Turner's challenges:

  • We ought to be looking to increase well-being  per head and that is not synonymous with material GDP.  Greater sharing, shorter working hours, more leisure, more co-operation and less aggressive competition, more seeking to reach our own potential rather than outdo that of our neighbours, are all aims which will not only better conserve the earth's scarce resources but also lead to greater happiness.
  • Deregulated (ie "free") markets, rather than increasing welfare, or even material output,  are the major cause of our present economic problems.  Government regulation is needed, as our great economist Adam Smith, wrongly adopted as the icon of the neo-conservatives, explained over 200 years ago because: "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends  in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."  (Wealth of Nations, p116, Everyman's Edition).  This is particularly true when the financial sector is so overcame by greed that it loses track of what it is actually buying and selling.
  • We should not be relaxed about some people becoming "filthy rich" as Labour politician Peter Mandelson is, because their affluence doesn't trickle down, they keep it to themselves and hoard it for their offspring. And, as Wilkinson and Pickett in "The Spirit Level" (Penguin), demonstrate,  unequal societies are more dysfunctional.  Emphatically, as present we are not "all in this together" and if we were there would be a lot less angst.
So I hope Mark Carney will take the opportunity to read Lord Turner's book whilst waiting to take over.

Friday 23 November 2012

New DG for BBC

Sorry for the title of  initials, but that seems to be the trendy way of communicating these days: these do have the advantage of a little rhyme.

The appointment of Lord (Tony) Hall as the replacement Director General for the BBC was swift and appears to be popular and appropriate.  I am, however, alarmed to see that, not only is he to be paid the full whack annual salary of £450 000, which we knew about because that was the pay-off for the last one, but in addition her is to continue to receive a pension of £80 000 a year.

Given the the average wage in Britain is around £24 000 a year,  that total payment of £530 000 a year is as much as more than half of us earn in 20 years.  Do we really want, or even need, to pay that kind of money to public servants?

I was fortunate to retire as a teacher on half pay.  After a couple of years a a volunteer teacher in Malaŵi and then some occasional lecturing for the WEA  I was, much to my pleasure and surprise, invited back to school teaching on a regular basis.  However, the rule was that I should work only part time, and should not earn more than a sum which, combined with my pension , would amount to what  I would have received if I had not retired but continues as a full-time teacher.  That seemed to me to be a very generous deal and I felt very lucky to have it.

Tony Hall's £80 000 pension (more than three times the average full time pay) is from the BBC, as he has worked for them before.  The same rule should apply to him.  Even with that restriction he would still be in financial clover, especially considering that, should he be short of a bob or two he can, as  a Lord, just pop into the Upper House, sign the register and receive his expenses on a daily basis (is it £300 a day?)

I have no wish to provide ammunition to the BBC bashers, who have their own agenda of wishing  to grab a slice of the service for their own profiit-maximising selves, but this absurd over-payment of people at the top, even in the public service, make a mockery of our being  "all in this together."

Welfare payments are, of course, about to be cut, along with many services which provide vital lifelines for those at the bottom of the pile.

Thursday 22 November 2012

Women bishops - the Church of England in the van

Like, thankfully, most members of the C of E, I am very disappointed by the failure of the General Synod to authorise women to become bishops.  However, I feel that some of the comment on it, both by participants in the debate and external reporters (suicide, disaster) are well over the top.

The Anglican Church is the third largest Christian denomination.  The largest, the Roman Catholics, have not  yet even given the slightest official consideration to women becoming priests, never mind bishops.The only sign of a movement in that direction is a fringe group, (called I believe MOW -Movement for the Ordination of Women,) which has, I believe, little support, and certainly no official encouragement.

The second largest denomination are the Orthodox. I am no expert but  Orthodoxy today.org states firmly:

 It is not difficult, indeed, simply to state that the Orthodox Church is against women's priesthood and to enumerate as fully as possible the dogmatical, canonical, and spiritual reasons for that opposition.

What's more, when I visited one of their principal places of pilgrimage, the Holy Mountain, Mount Athos, I discovered that not only were there no women priests, women were not even allowed on the peninsula at all.  Indeed they even discourage female animals, and don't have fresh milk because that would involve having cows (females)on the sacred territory.

I'm not entirely sure, and haven't at the moment time to look it up, but I suspect there are not many lady Imams in the Muslim faith.

So by comparison, having come within a hairsbreadth of authorising the consecration of women to the episcopate the  C of E isn't doing too badly.  I suspect that within a decade we shall have caught up with most of our non-conformist brothers and sisters.  Let those commentators and politicians who've jumped on the bandwagon to upbraid us, do a bit of cheering instead.

Monday 19 November 2012

A plague on all our houses

The abysmal turnout in last week's elections for Police and Crime commissioners, averaging below 15%, sends a raspberry to our political establishment.  There are in my view three reasons for the debacle:

  1. the posts, and thus elections for them, are unnecessary;
  2. the organisation was staggeringly inept;
  3. the election  continued the stream of misrepresentations, distortions and  and self-serving attitude emanating from all our parties.
1. I suspect that the Tories (and this was exclusively a Tory idea, opposed by the Liberal Democrats and nothing to do with the coalition) felt they could jump on the "Laura Norder" bandwagon so frequently whipped up by the red-top newspapers,  have elected some of their traditional "hangers, floggers and ban-the woggers" and so appease alleged popular concerns about crime (the incidence of which all  statistics show is actually falling.)    The low turnout demonstrates that the public is either not actually as alarmed as the red-tops pretend and the Tories hoped,  or takes the view that politicians can't do much about it anyway.

2.  It was incredibly inept to hold the election in November (no longer a regular time for elections) and allow the candidates no free-post literature.  Why on earth introduce a democratic  innovation and give it the participants no assistance in publicising  their views?  David Cameron blames the media for giving the campaigns little publicity, but this is not, in my experience, true.  Both Radio 4 and our local television news service, Look North, made frequent references to the campaigns and candidates.  I believe the candidates also had spots on local radio.

3.  a)  We were told that the existing Police Authorities had no democratic accountability.  This is is untrue.  As far as I can make out,  in my own area 10 of the 18 members of the Authority in West Yorkshire are elected councillors from the local authorities authorities making up the area, so they do have some democratic credibility,

b)  We were told that a directly elected individual could better represent the views of  the public in the area far better than the existing system.  Even with a a mandate backed by a strong majority in a high turnout this would be nonsense.  Surely the 10 elected councillors in  an area a diverse as West Yorkshire can together form a better picture of  the various concerns than one individual. Presumably the eight appointed members have some additional experiences to add to the mix, though a  return to the old  Watch Committees, comprising very local councillors and magistrates before the centralising, big is better, craze, would have been better still.

c)  Our Police and Crimes Commissioner is to be paid a salary of £100 000 a year.  How this compares with the cost of the current Police Authority, with its members presumably collecting expenses, I don't know, but in an era of alleged austerity, when provision for the disabled and others in need of help from the public purse is being cut, this rightly sticks in the electorate's craw.

So altogether an "own goal" by the Tory populists which merely adds to the discredit to which our democracy is currently  being subjected

Saturday 17 November 2012

Tax avoiders and trials.

Lord McAlpine has apparently settled out of court for his £185 000 damages and costs from the BBC for the alleged libel. However, the BBC  is apparently only the head of a "very long list" (Guardian 16th November) of others including  ITV and the wife of the Speaker, whom Lord McAlpine is likely to sue.  If any of these defend their case they will make us of a judge, courtroom, ushers and other officials, all financed by we taxpayers.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, as noted in my comment below, (Self-harming BBC) Lord McAlpine has registered himself as a non-domicile in order to avoid paying British taxes.  Surely in such cases it should be possible to deny the use of our our facilities, legal and otherwise,  to those who  deliberately avoid paying their share for them.

Monday 12 November 2012

Self-harming BBC

The priorities of the British establishment and media are baffling in the extreme.  The reputation of a Tory lord has been impugned, which is bad but not life-threatening, and no-one has died as a result, but the Director General of the BBC has been pressured into resigning,  the BBC is said to be in one of the worst crises in its history.,and both the BBC and other media  seem to have talked and written of little else else for days.

I am all in favour of those responsible for serious debacles being held to account, but the Director General's resignation is purely token.  He had held the job for less than two months and must still have been learning the ropes:  he can hardly be held responsible for whatever faults in the organisational structure led to this minor mishap.

  • Yet at the same time bankers who failed properly to supervise their traders whose recklessness led to a global financial crisis with repercussions on millions remain in post.  
  • People are beaten up by policemen on demonstrations and there are deaths in police custody, but rarely is anyone found to be culpable.  
  • Warnings of the dangers of ash die-back disease have apparently been around for several years: who ignored them and why haven't they been sacked?  
  • The ministry of defence wastes millions on wasteful procuration deals and yet generals, rather than getting the sack, retire with honour and then hop nimbly into lucrative positions in the armaments industry. 
  • Newspaper executives who permitted the phone hacking which has caused distress to hundreds remain in post.
  • Of those who produced  an Olympics nearly 300% over budget,  one  is given a peerage and joins the government, and another is acknowledged in this morning's Guardian as a national hero

It has often been argued that the law in the UK deals more severely with injuries to property than it does with injuries to people.  Clearly that does not apply if the  person injured, if only in reputation,  is part of the establishment,  Lord McAlpine threatens to sue.  If he does I hope the damages are only token (after all, the money comes from our licence fee) and if they are large he donates them to a suitable charity, perhaps one trying to help real paedophiles control  with their unacceptable disposition.

In all this flagellation and self-flagellation of the BBC we need to remember that there are rapacious capitalists, who give priority to profits over balanced reporting, honesty and artistic endeavour,  who are very anxious to gain a slice of the BBC's place in the market: viz the Murdoch empire, with the Telegraph and Mail not far behind 

Monday 5 November 2012

Surprise - a cheer for Michael Gove!

When I trained as a teacher in the 1950s we were proudly taught that, whereas on the continent, and in particular France, control freak governments laid down exactly and precisely what was to be taught in their schools, here in the freedom-lovng UK, schools and teachers were trusted to use their expertise, judgement and local knowledge to decide on what the children in their care should be taught.

 In actual fact I suspect that it was good text books as much as anything that were the main influence on what was taught, especially in the junior and lower forms of the secondary schools.  When I began teaching, in a secondary-modern school, in 1959, one of the first questions I was asked by the head of the history department was what books were the college recommending.  I told her and she promptly bought sets.  Curriculum instructions rarely amounted to much more than to "get through" as much of the appropriate text books as possible in the year.  In English there was the expectation that there would be "some" literature, poetry, comprehension, composition and oral work each week.  This  left a considerable amount of latitude for the initiatives and enthusiasms of the individual teacher.and was great fun.

If anything, however, there was too much conformity.  This was especially true in the last two years before taking the 16+ examinations, which the majority were encouraged to stay on at school and take, although the minimum leaving age was still 15.  For these two years the curriculum in each subject was determined by the various examination boards.

English education suffered, and perhaps still suffers, from a "trickle-down effect" in which the universities, by their entrance requirements,  dictated what the grammar schools taught, and the secondary-moderns gained prestige my aping the grammar schools.  Unfortunately the third leg of what was meant to be a tripartite system, the technical schools, never really took off and technical education has never gained the status which I understand it enjoys on the continent, and in particular, Germany.

A Tory government destroyed this innovative hotchpotch in 1988 and introduced the National Curriculum, though, significantly, it did and does not apply to their own breeding ground the public (ie private, fee paying) schools .To our shame the Liberals leadership of the time accepted, indeed welcomed, it, though surely the concept is antithetical to liberalism.

From a Secretary of State who has presumed to instruct teachers on the method to be used to teach children to read. and has conceived  the ridiculously named and restrictive Ebach, Michael Gove's proposals to  "slim down" the curriculum  come from an unexpected source.  Never the less, the proposals,  leaked in a document last week, are  to be welcomed, Unfortunately but predictably the move has produced a knee-jerk reaction from the Labour party, who bleat that: "there is no mention of the importance of spelling ...for 11 to 14 year olds."

How patronising that our politicians think teachers need to be instructed to teach our children how to spell their own language.  Next they'll be telling parents to teach their babies to crawl.  Liberal Democrats should welcome these moves to reduce this draconian central direction, call for further moves in eduction and for similar principles to be applied in other areas.

Saturday 3 November 2012

Unprincipled Parliamentary Games

Last Thursday, the day after the Parliamentary Labour party  had allied itself to the Tory right-wing Euro-sceptics in order to defeat the government on the of the EU budget, I happened to run into my ((Labour) MP in our market place.  I told him that I thought the Labour Party's action was  deplorably opportunistic.  He grinned and replied that any opportunity to kick David Cameron was not to be missed.

Well, I suppose it goes down well in the Westminster bubble and gives the media, chattering classes and we political anoraks something to get excited about.  But it is just this sort of political gamesmanship played by our political leaders, (they can hardly be called statesmen,) which brings democratic politics as at present practised into disrepute.

Labour's parliamentary antics are disreputable on at least two counts.  First they pretend to be an internationalist party, keen to develop co-operation for the improvement  of the quality of life across national boundaries.  Tony Blair claimed to want to put Britain "at the heart of Europe" but never did much positive about it.  There were hopes that the party under Ed Miliband was made of sterner stuff.  Clearly short term fun continues to have precedence over principled discussion.

Second, the Labour Party preaches Keynesian economic stimulation to revive employment and growth.  That is precisely the purpose of the EU budget, 94% for which is returned to EU citizens, much of it in the less developed regions, and much of which is devoted to infrastructure development, research, innovation and creativity- exactly the policy  Ed Balls urges the government to follow at home, but not, apparently, via the EU.

We expect the Tory party to be Tory, we know they have a strong anti-EU element, and it is no surprise that Cameron's efforts to detoxify the party barely scratch the surface.

But  this parliament so far the Labour Party has failed to support electoral reform, in which it claims to believe, has failed to support the means to reform of the second chamber, to which it is committed  and has now done its best to torpedo a relatively positive and constructive approach to the EU.

No wonder people are turned of politics, say that none of us is to be trusted, and the percentage turnout in elections has fallen to the low 60s. 

Thursday 1 November 2012

Algorithms, an abuse of a good instiution

I don't normally read a Sunday paper as the Saturday one takes me all weekend to digest, but a friend  (dubbed a "Thoroughly good egg" by a reader of this blog and designated a "member of the Liberal élite" by his Tory MP) has alerted me to an article in the Observer a couple of weeks ago in which the writer, Simon Neville, reveals  how traders now operate on the US Stock Market.

Apparently 75% of all trades are initiated by algorithms on computers.  The shock statistic, to me at any rate, is that the average purchase is held for just 22 seconds (my emphasis).

I was taught that the "invention" of the limited liability joint stock company was as important to the industrial revolution as the invention of the steam engine, in that it enabled capital to be brought into economic and industrial development without endangering the entire assets of the investor.   Stock exchanges  are a natural extension of the concept, in that they enable stock to be sold without delay, though perhaps at a loss, should the investor need access to  his or her capital.

All good ideas are open to abuse, and it has long been the case that stock exchanges function as gambling casinos for those with wealth.  It has long been known that investors can act irrationally (the fall in the share prices when Harold Wilson caught a train to visit his sick father was a good example from my earlier teaching days)  but it is surely outrageous that the gambling can now be devolved to machines capable of acting with such speed.

I am insufficiently inducted into the mysteries of share and asset dealing to have precise solutions as to how to return stock exchanges to their original function, but something should be done.  For starters I suggest either a whopping capital transactions tax, not just the faction of 1% advocated by Tobin, or regulation that would require stock to be held for a minimum period, say six months, before it can be re-sold.

More informed suggestions welcomed.