“Daytime Discounts” For Cheaper Electricity

British Gas has announced a new scheme where customers pays more, or less, for their electricity depending on the time of day.

This is what Privatization does. When liberated from the dead-hand of state control, privately run businesses can innovate more because more ideas can be dreamed-up and market tested. The concept of market testing is alien to state-controlled businesses because they don’t operate in a market, they have captive users who must accept whatever is offered at whatever price is charged. So there is no incentive to innovate in the first place.

I like this idea. I think it is imaginative and I think it would work. The next step though would probably be dynamic pricing, where the price fluctuates not only with the time of day but with how much load there is, that is how many other people are competing with you to use electricity. In that case electricity will go to the highest bidders, those prepared to pay the most. I’m not sure I’d welcome that personally, but if a Ryanair-style energy provider does enter the market, who knows how they would structure the tariff.

Read the full Daily Telegraph article

Nostradamus and Thatcher

In the future, there will be calamities and misfortunes we cannot as yet imagine that will be blamed on the “Thatcher Legacy”. An army of revisionists is labouring away, examining the life and work of Margaret of Grantham in a bizarre reversal of the way commentators twist the writings of Michel de Nostredame to make them fit great events in history. Instead of twisting the narrative to fit history they twist history to fit their narrative. Thus they falsely prove with unerring accuracy and unshakable certainty that she is the cause all our present and future woes.

In the Thatcherdamus version of reality, she was the one who saddled all our hospitals with crippling debt. She was the one who appointed ATOS to process disability benefit claims. She was the one who appointed G4S to provide security for the London Olympics. She was the one who appointed Fred the Shred to run the Royal Bank of Scotland. She was the one who had John Prescott bulldoze thousands of council houses. She was the one who appointed Gordon Brown Chancellor of the Exchequer. That’s what they would have us believe, and much more besides.

The reality is, stuff happens. Some is good, some is bad. But the anti-Thatcher revisionists don’t acknowledge that bad things happened before Thatcher and that they were not her fault, or that good things happened after Thatcher and that she should get credit for them. They contort what actually happened to prove how for decades after she left office she could cause a Labour government with a huge majority in the House of Commons to pass legislation and make government appointments that perpetuated her legacy. Three elections in a row.

Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about Nostradamus:

Most academic sources maintain that the associations made between world events and Nostradamus’s quatrains are largely the result of misinterpretations or mistranslations (sometimes deliberate) or else are so tenuous as to render them useless as evidence of any genuine predictive power. Nevertheless, occasional commentators have successfully used a process of free interpretation and determined ‘twisting’ of his words to predict an apparently imminent event.

Here’s how I would define Thatcherdamus:

Most rational observers maintain that the associations made between world events and Thatcher’s Legacy are largely the result of misinterpretations or misrepresentations (sometimes deliberate) or else are so tenuous as to render them useless as evidence of any genuine connection. Nevertheless, occasional commentators have successfully used a process of free interpretation and determined ‘twisting’ of her record to attach blame to any apparently undesired outcome.

So if you’re a left-winger who’s unhappy with the mess the country is in today, and it certainly is in a mess, don’t try and distort history to fit your agenda. Look to yourself and ask yourself what you did while Labour held power under Blair and then Brown, that’s where you’ll find the blame. It isn’t the “Legacy” of someone who left office more than two decades ago, it’s Labour’s own ineptitude. But you knew that already, didn’t you? Nostradamus had predicted it.

Thatcherism Explained: With Music

The violence and bile unleashed by anti-Thatcher demonstrators following her death is astonishing. And pitiful. You have to be an especially inadequate kind of person to bottle up that amount of hatred for 23 years, never mind those who weren’t even born at the time. So I would like to deal with that hatred by trivialising it. I would like to explain Margaret Thatcher’s record and what Thatcherism stands for by referencing a few hit pop songs.

In the first two decades since Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister, three other prime ministers came and went and wreaked real, not imagined, damage on Britain. And Britain is in a dreadful mess, let’s not pretend otherwise, but let’s put the blame where it properly belongs. John Major, a Conservative, was hamstrung by an unworkably tiny majority in the House of Commons while his government was torn apart by divisions over Europe. Tony Blair openly clothed himself in the Thatcher legacy to offer a “third way” for British politics. That turned out to be handing the keys to the Treasury to Gordon Brown while spinning whichever way the political wind took him. Then he resigned and allowed Gordon Brown to take over at Number 10. Brown, first as Chancellor of the Exchequer and then in his turn as Prime Minister, created the conditions for the economic mess we are in today. They were a disastrous double act. While Blair was slavishly following everything successive American presidents were doing, such as invading Iraq and lying about the justifications for it, Brown was slavishly following everything Wall Street was doing, such as unleashing the banks and removing every means of regulation.

And those hateful individuals who rejoice at Thatcher’s death acknowledge none of this. It’s as if every woe, and there are plenty today, is her fault and hers alone.


What they also choose to forget is what Britain was like before Thatcher. Or maybe, just maybe, they know all too well what Britain was like before Thatcher and it is the fact she swept it away that is the root of their ire.

So let’s remember some of it, shall we?

The unions, remember them? Remember how the norm was beer and sandwiches at Number 10 while the union bosses told whoever was the prime minister what he had to do? Remember the sheer arrogance of their power, how it was wielded openly and contemptuously? Scargill sending pickets to close down a coking plant and forcing Edward Heath to concede a 27% pay rise for the miners? Remember how Red Robbo was caught on camera lying about a vote to strike? He’d called a mass meeting at British Leyland where a show of hands was overwhelming against strike action. A forest of hands had shot up. He called for those in favour of strike action and far fewer hands went up. Without missing a beat he declared the vote in favour and car production was halted yet again. This was caught by a television camera filming through a gap in the fence.

In the run-up to the 1979 general election, which was Thatcher’s first win, here’s what we had. We had gravediggers going on strike leaving bodies unburied and piling up in dis-used factories in temporary storage. Refuse collectors went on strike too, leading to mountains of rubbish piling up on city streets. Lorry drivers went on strike causing petrol shortages and rationing. Ambulance drivers and hospital ancillary workers went on strike meaning 999 emergency calls went unanswered and patients, even cancer patients, couldn’t get essential treatment. Train drivers went on a series of 24 hour strikes. Those were just the headline grabbers, the background was strikes, lightning-strikes, walk-outs, work-to-rules and go-slows everywhere and this all happened before Thatcher and under a labour government. Union power was unassailable as this Strawb’s hit, “You Don’t Get Me I’m Part Of The Union” from 1973 so well encapsulates with its mock triumphalism.

I was in the Royal Air Force and based in Germany in the mid-70’s. We were acutely aware of the real and ever-present threat from the Soviet Union, the same USSR that our trade union leaders were all in thrall to. We were well briefed on the danger they posed to us and we carried out regular military exercises. One evening I was watching German TV news and there was a report from Berlin about how young East Germans were flocking to the beaches that summer and tuning into banned Western radio stations. It was an eye-opener for me. There were these young people, my age, happy and openly disobeying the communist authorities. It was clear they were also aware of the lifestyle they were missing and I knew it could only be a matter of time before the dam burst. This was one of the hits they were listening to, and it still brings to my mind those images of young East Germans on the beach.

Those young East Germans could well have identified with this next song if they’d known about it. As a young boy living in Aden in the 1960s, I remember it very well. It’s not glamorous by any stretch, but what it says to me is how much freedom matters more than material possessions. The drifter is happier being on the road, independent, and selling his labour to get the few things he needs, when he wants them, on his terms. He doesn’t need the government to find him a job or a trade union to negotiate his pay and conditions.

And then came Thatcher.

Thatcher took on the unions in sometimes long and often bitter confrontations, but she was not to be intimidated as James Callaghan had been before her. There were fundamental problems with the UK and they needed radical solutions. These were not days for the faint-hearted. Union reforms include abolishing closed shops, and a requirement for secret ballots before strike action. The first was needed because it gave unions the power to have any worker dismissed if he or she did not toe the union line. All they had to do was expel him from the union and because it was a closed shop and he was required to be in the union the employer would be compelled to sack him. The second reform was to end the obvious abuse of unions calling strikes that had no support from their members. Other measures included banning flying pickets and secondary picketing, by which means unions could mobilise mobs to lay siege to an employer who was standing out against them and physically shut them down by bringing in workers that had nothing to do with the dispute.

Thatcher was about giving people their rights back. Millions lived in council houses, “projects” in American terms, and were as much at the mercy of their councils as they were at the mercy of the unions at work. Giving people the right to buy their council homes was a core policy of Thatcherism, so let’s have a short interlude from appropriately named Madness.

It’s hard to appreciate how all-pervasive the state was back then. The state owned much of the nation’s housing stock, it ran schools and hospitals, owned and ran train and bus services, it even built the trains and buses, as well as cars, aircraft, and ships and supplied the steel to do all that with. The state mined for coal, supplied gas, electricity and water, funded the monopoly radio and television services, and ran the telephone service. Back then it would take months to get a phone installed in your home. I had some friends who were expecting their first child and they were told they could use that as an excuse to get bumped-up the priority list. It was a wonderment to them that they had a phone installed in a matter of weeks. As well as relying on the state to fix their phone if there was a problem, the state also repaired gas and electric cookers. Remember the gas board showrooms where you could go to pick one out? Or the electricity board showrooms? Think about that for a moment, competition in those dark days was a choice between a state-run gas showroom and a state-run electricity showroom. What right did the state have to have a monopoly on selling, installing and maintaining a gas cooker?

There’s an old communist joke about a guy who goes into a showroom in Moscow and after much negotiation does a deal on the car he wants. He asks about delivery. The salesman gets out his diary, flips through many pages to a date five years hence. He scours the pages and eventually announces a date, Thursday 23rd February. “Ah,” says the Muscovite, “morning or afternoon?” The salesman is incredulous, “What do you mean, morning or afternoon, it’s five years away, what difference will it make?” “Well,” replies the Muscovite, “the gas man is coming in the morning to fix the cooker.” Not so funny when you’re living it as we were.

Privatization was the solution. Every state-owned enterprise was put up for sale. It wasn’t universally popular with some of the old Tories, “Selling the family silver” they called it and that was part of the mind-set that Thatcher had to change. But it was hugely successful with the people which was what really mattered. Millions of people bought shares at each successive privatization. It was popular and it was populist. Here’s an ad promoting the sale of British Gas. Okay, so one that’s not music then.

“Tell Sid” British Gas advert

The left fought long and hard. It’s where the hatred they still feel today emanates. I used to enjoy watching Labour Party conferences on tv, so much more fun than the boring old stage-managed affairs the Conservatives used to put on. There was real debate, and real emotion and at the height of Thatcher’s power, the Labour Party was bitterly divided over how to respond. One side saw the writing on the wall and wanted to modernise, particularly regarding Clause 4 of the Labour Party constitution which essentially mandated nationalisation. They wanted to drop it. The hard-left would have none of that, it was at the heart of their credo. Eric Heffer, who was Old Labour and very much hard left, was outspoken on the topic. I remember watching him being booed by conference as he tried to defend Clause 4, and as he walked away from the microphone and out of the hall he was jeered. He was terminally ill at the time and the catcalls were to tell him to go to his beloved Russia for treatment, although rather coarsely expressed. I admired Eric, although he was a Marxist he was genuine in his beliefs and he sincerely wanted the best for the ordinary working man. I can always respect that. That’s not something you can say about everyone on the left. So this next “tune” is that old stalwart of Labour Party conferences that is still sung today, “We’ll Keep The Red Flag Flying Here.” What I like about this version is how badly it is sung.

A more tuneful rejection of Thatcher’s policies came from Pink Floyd who had a hit with, “Another Brick in the Wall,” an irony-free tirade against the benefits of a decent education and a school choir singing “We don’t need no education.” In many ways this might be the perfect metaphor for the left: they don’t want the next generation to understand the facts, they just want left-wing myths propagated and the truth suppressed. The last thing they want is an educated electorate. The left was vocal throughout Thatcher’s time in office, and wrong on every issue including education. When Labour was in power, Grammar Schools were a particular target, the left hated the idea that some people were getting a better education. Instead of bringing standards up in the public sector, their approach was to bring standards down in the private. It was another aspect of the politics of envy that drove them.

The pressure was telling though, it was utterly relentless and as well as the left, Thatcher had her hands full dealing with the “Wets” in her own government who also resisted everything she tried to do. It required as much strength of purpose on her part as anything else she had to contend with. The problem issue was one that dogs us to this day – Europe. The Conservative Party has long been split into pro-Europe and anti-Europe camps. That’s not to say the anti’s don’t like the French or the Germans or whatever, far from it, it’s just that they haven’t signed up to the project to create a united Europe. Take me for example, no-one can say I’m not pro-German having lived there very happily for so many years, but I’m certainly anti-EU. The more the project morphed from a common trading area into a European superstate, the more bitter and deeper those divisions became. Thatcher defended Britain’s interests and resisted as much as she could of the tide of European legislation that we as members of the EU were obligated to adopt. She negotiated opt-outs where she could and a sizeable rebate on the amount we were paying into EU coffers each year.

In 1815, The Duke of Wellington met Napoleon on the field of battle. It was a crucial battle because the future of Europe depended on it. Lose, and Napoleon would be free to sweep across the continent and bring it all under his domain. Win, and Europe is saved. The site of the battle, of course, was Waterloo which I think is a fitting metaphor for Thatcher’s campaign to save Britain and Europe from this slow-motion disaster that is the European project. It is an on-going struggle.

Another struggle was dealing with the institutionalised lethargy of the civil service. Their attitude couldn’t be changed overnight and they were wedded to the doctrine of managed decline. British influence in the world had been seriously harmed by Labour’s misrule, particularly when they had to go to the International Monetary Fund in 1976 and ask for a bail-out because our economy had hit rock bottom. The Foreign Office was defeatist and accepted decline as an inevitability, it sought to resolve problems by adopting a strategy of conceding everything. It was less a policy of, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…” it was more a policy of “Don’t even try in the first place.”

In particular, the Foreign Office had bent over backwards to appease Argentina which had it’s eye on the Falkland Islands. The fact that their claim to the Islands was entirely without merit mattered not, the mandarins at the FO made every kind of proposal to try and fob the Islanders off and hand them to Argentina. Incredibly, Argentina rejected everything. Argentina was ruled by a military Junta that had been waging what was euphemistically called a Dirty War against its own people. Thousands of dissidents and those just plain unlucky disappeared, mostly tortured and murdered. Deeply unpopular, the Junta sought a diversion. On the 2nd April 1982 they invaded the Falkland Islands and at a stroke they were instantly popular. Britain, however, was plunged into crisis. Almost everyone, in her government and not, advised Thatcher that Britain could do nothing about it. Save one lone voice, the Chief of the Defence staff, Admiral Lord Lewin. He wasn’t even supported by everyone at the Ministry of Defence when he told the Prime Minister that he could put a fleet together, sail to the south Atlantic and liberate the Islands.

Thatcher showed her true mettle. She was steadfast in her belief that the Falkland Islands must be recovered and the Falkland Islanders liberated. We don’t need to go into the details of the short war, or the outrageous falsehoods the left concocted to tarnish her reputation, we just need to note that the armed forces showed extraordinary skill and bravery, in the full glare of the world’s media, the USSR getting an especially close look with spy trawlers that shadowed the fleet. This hit number from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita was eagerly adopted by the troops.

The great skill shown by our forces, overcoming incredible odds to defeat a larger, well prepared army that was equipped with modern Western weapons and trained in Western tactics was a revelation to the Russians. And deeply worrying to them. Thatcher increased the pressure on Russia by welcoming American cruise missiles to bases in England, again in the teeth of bitter and violent opposition from the friends of Russia. She also encouraged Reagan to develop his Star Wars programme. But the sheer scale of the West’s technological superiority was not driven home until the first Gulf War which happened after Thatcher had left office. Michael Gorbachev, however, already knew the score and on a visit to Britain before he became president of the Soviet Union, he and Thatcher unexpectedly hit it off. She told president Ronald Reagan, her political soul mate, that Gorbachev was someone she could do business with, and she encouraged him to do likewise. This was a pivotal moment in the ending of the Cold War. The working relationship that she, Gorbachev and Reagan established would lead ultimately to nuclear disarmament talks and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall. And thus I am reminded of those young East Germans sunning themselves on the beach while listening to Western pop songs. It took a long time to come about, but they got their freedom in the end.

But are the left happy? I don’t care. Thatcherism was never about making them happy, it was always about giving the people of Britain the freedom to choose what they wanted, which was her first, last and only concern. I can confidently state that is not how the left see it. They will decide what is good for the people and the people don’t get a say in the matter. Just like it used to be in the old Soviet Union, just like the left wish it was again today.

So I’d like to conclude with Nimrod, from Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This will be played at the conclusion of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral which, given the presence of Falkland’s War related military personnel, makes this YouTube composition highly appropriate.

In conclusion, Margaret Thatcher accomplished a great deal in her time, becoming a Member of Parliament when women were very much second-class citizens in the world of politics. Going on to lead her Party and then to win three general elections is unparalleled. But in addition to all that, she was a wife and mother; she graduated in chemistry specialising in x-ray crystallography; she studied further and qualified as a barrister specialising in taxation. She clearly had the aptitude to study and understand difficult subjects so she was very well equipped to cut through the waffle and get to the heart of any matter. The facts and the evidence mattered a great deal to her and to us.

Thank you and God bless, Margaret Thatcher.

I Robot, You Student

A university-backed project in America is working on software that will mark exam papers, thus relieving professors from the need to know if their students are learning anything. Students sit in class, or log on via the Internet, follow a lesson and then take an online exam. Those essays are then marked by computer and the results instantly returned to the students.

I assume professors will get to see what the scores are, indeed one day I expect their salaries will depend on them. But they will not be able to see how well they did their jobs qualitatively because the feedback loop has been broken. They won’t learn anything about their students other than how well they can game the scoring algorithm.

This would help turn teaching into a one-way process. Indeed, you may not even need the professor other than to record videos that students can watch at their leisure. Or the smarter students can write a program that will watch videos and take exams for them.

When that happy day dawns, if it does, there will be a market for a radical form of education where a teacher actually meets with some students. They are able to interact face-to-face, with the teacher asking questions and students responding to demonstrate they have learned something, or to let the teacher realise what points haven’t been properly understood. The teacher will still be paid, but will now also receive job satisfaction while the students will feel they have a mentor, someone they can ask further questions of and expand their knowledge. It would be just like the Greeks did thousands of years ago when they invented university education.

The article in the New York Times that reports this is well worth a read, but the last but one paragraph is laugh-out loud funny. It reports on the views of a supporter of the new technology: “Plus, he noted, critics of the technology have tended to come from the nation’s best universities, where the level of pedagogy is much better than at most schools.”

In other words, the critics tend to be those who best understand the subject.

Or, let’s not listen to those who know what they’re talking about, listen to the idiots!

New York Times article: Essay-Grading Software Offers Professors a Break

Zero Dark Hurty: A Tale Of Torture?

She was right. It was bin Laden. They killed him.

That’s the plot of Zero Dark Thirty, another tour de force from Kathryn Bigelow, but notorious for apparently condoning torture. The film does start with a long segment of waterboarding and shouting used as routine interrogation methods, and heavy rock music played all night to keep the prisoner sleep-deprived and stressed. I don’t have a problem with mind games, making someone think they’re drowning. And loud music? Heck, I used to stay up all night in my younger days listening to Hawkwind at full volume. Bring it on. At one point they put the prisoner in a wooden box. Really? The horror of it all.

The debate of the moment of course is about the morality and usefulness of torture. I’m on the side of those who thinks it doesn’t work and for that reason alone, I think it shouldn’t be used. Otherwise, if it works and if it saves lives; do it. I have no moral compunction about using the tame methods shown here, nobody was pulling fingernails out with pliers, or crushing bones, or burning soles of feet. Zero Dark Thirty is ambivalent about torture. It is just presenting what went on, albeit heavily sanitised, without moralising for or against. However, it does give us a wrinkle. It was what the prisoners omitted to say or what they said they knew nothing about that gave Maya, the CIA heroine of the film played by Jessica Chastain, the idea that the unknown figure they were asking about could lead to bin Laden. Maya was alone in that, and we see her bosses making decisions on what intelligence was reliable and actionable on the basis of how much it would harm their careers if they were wrong, they having been burned in the past relying on faulty intelligence obtained through torture. Inertia ruled. But Maya’s dogged pursuit of bin Laden finally wins the day after further corroborative evidence is obtained by traditional means, and a raid is mounted.

The whole film runs like a documentary, plain facts presented without varnish. There are even section titles such as “Tradecraft” flashed on the screen as the film moves into different segments. As such it is hard to develop an emotional attachment to any of the characters, even bin Laden’s ultimate death is underplayed and anti-climactic, coming at the end of another segment that shows all the preparations leading up to the raid the execution of which is nonetheless engrossing and incredibly tense.

Watching Maya following events back at headquarters as the raid unfolds reminded me of a scene in the World War Two movie, The Dam Busters. Barnes Wallis, inventor of the ‘bouncing bomb’, is waiting back at RAF Scampton having seen the bombers take off for the Ruhr dams. He is evidently distressed at having devised the means to mount the raid in the first place and this makes him feel personally responsible for putting the aircrew in harms way. Many did die. Maya was clearly having the same attack of guilt and this was perhaps the most touching part of the film although all her boys got back safely.

This is no gung-ho Bond movie, it is a gritty, realistic, gripping drama.

Lincoln: An Oscar contender

Right from the first minutes I was reminded of Richard Attenborough being interviewed about “Ghandi,” a film he’d spent most of his adult life planning to make. He went to India to negotiate filming on location but the authorities seemed more preoccupied with how Ghandi was to be portrayed. Who would play him was a big issue, he was such a revered figure they felt no-one could or should represent him; that to have him ‘played’ by ‘an actor’ was almost an affront to his memory. They suggested he could be represented by a point of light that would move about on screen. Attenborough was scornful, “I hadn’t spent thirty years of my life,” he said, “trying to make a film about bloody Tinkerbell.” And that’s what it felt like I was watching. Lincoln was portrayed with such reverential awe that he might well have been played by a point of shining light.

Fortunately, the film is not a bio-pic telling Lincoln’s story from cradle to grave. It focused specifically on the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment and the few months of manoeuvring and power-politics required to pass it in what turned out to be a nineteenth-century version of The West Wing. Like that landmark TV series, the film was well written, tight and focused, and the masterful acting and high production values saved the day. Daniel Day-Lewis was outstanding as Lincoln, and while I had read some criticism over his high-pitched voice I found he sounded convincing and real. Indeed, the awe and reverence on the faces of the actors around him may simply have been their admiration for his performance.

All-in-all it was a compelling and engrossing film of Oscar-winning standards. Up until the closing scenes, that is, when we see Lincoln lying on his bed surrounded by his closest advisors. Upon being pronounced dead, the scene fades and a burning candle flame fills the screen. Then, through the flame, Lincoln appears and delivers his second Inaugural address. Bloody Tinkerbell after all. Aaron Sorkin would have done a better job.

It Didn’t Work For The Soviets, It Won’t Work For Us

The way to get ourselves out of our present economic difficulties is not to emulate the Soviet Union. That bloated, inefficient command economy rightly collapsed and died more than two decades ago and is only missed by the likes of Vladimir Putin and hard-line Stalinists. Oh, and Keynesians apparently. They want us to adopt the very same policies of state intervention.

The problem with Keynsians and communists alike is they don’t trust the people. We can’t be trusted to spend our own money on things we regard as a priority. No, they have to take our money from us in higher taxation and spend it on what they think are higher priorities. That way the economy will generate more revenue and they’ll be able to tax that too and spend still more money on things they think are important. On our behalf. In our name. Without our consent.

We were pretty much a command economy not so long ago. The government owned companies that made cars, trucks and ships, that ran the telephone service, ran the trains, ran the buses, ran the economy into the ground. Talking of ground, the government even dug for coal. The government built the roads, built the railway lines, built airports. The government owned the houses that ordinary working people lived in. The government ran the hospitals when they were ill, ran the schools their children went to. The government even ran radio and television stations. The list goes on.

Thank God for Thatcher.

Some things should be run by the government for and on behalf of all the people. But generating the country’s wealth is best left to us. The government simply has to get out of the way and Margaret Thatcher did us an enormous service by privatizing whatever was not the government’s business.

“Austerity” is a misnomer. It should be called “Liberation”. It is the process of the government getting out of our way and liberating us from state control. However it is under threat at the moment from those who believe it is not working and cannot work. They want to increase taxes, to take more out of our pockets and reduce the amount of money we have to spend, which means, of course, we will spend less. Only they’re not so daft as to announce they want to increase taxes, no, they simply say they want to increase government spending. As if we don’t know where the money is coming from. Increasing taxes and taking money away from us will increase austerity, not reduce it.

How can we possibly be better off with less money coming in?

If you want us to be better off, reduce the taxes we have to pay. Cut VAT or increase the tax threshold. Leave more money in our pockets.

It won’t feel so austere then.

Shouting “Fire!” in the Middle East

Comedians are often pioneers of bad taste, it’s almost a challenge for them to see how much they can offend. But ask Ricky Gervais how that worked out for him when he ran a couple of jokes recently about “mongs”. And have we ever heard from Michael Richards (famous as Kramer on Seinfeld) since he used the “N” word on stage? Or indeed shock-jock Don Imus who referred to a women’s basketball team as “towel-headed hos”. The list of comedians causing offense is long.

Actually, that last one is the most interesting. Imus was sacked from his job with CBS but when he appeared on Al Sharpton’s radio show to discuss his remarks, he said this:

“Our agenda is to be funny and sometimes we go too far. And this time we went way too far. Here’s what I’ve learned: that you can’t make fun of everybody, because some people don’t deserve it.”

Nicely put.

I don’t believe that freedom of speech is an absolute that must be defended regardless of circumstances. The oft-cited limitation is that nobody has the right to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre.

So it must also be true that nobody has the right to make gratuitously offensive remarks about the Prophet Mohammed.

“Some people don’t deserve it,” said Imus.

Given the sensitivity of some Moslems and the apparent ease with which they can be sent out onto the streets to riot, that has to be pretty close to shouting “fire” in a crowded theatre. Some of them are volatile people and these are volatile times, you just know what reaction that is going to provoke. You know people will be killed in consequence. But if you believe it is their own stupidity that makes them so sensitive and their own stupidity that drives them onto the streets and their own stupidity to kill people of their own faith in retaliation for someone else making offensive remarks, maybe you also believe it’s okay to make jokes about “mongs”. I can’t agree with you.

I do not believe the motives behind making the “Innocence of Muslims” have anything to do with free speech, and it does not deserve to be defended on those grounds. Frankly, it does not deserve to be defended.

(For the record, it seems the offensive nature of the film is entirely in the post-production sound dubbing which completely changed the nature of the film the cast were led to believe they were appearing in. The producer has to bear full responsibility.)

The Legacy of the Neocons on 9/11

Saddam Hussein brutalised his country and ruled it by fear. He was without question an evil man responsible for the deaths of countless thousands of Iraqis. But he posed no threat to the West in general or the United States of America in particular. No threat whatsoever. Osama bin Laden on the other hand was a major proven threat. He had orchestrated numerous attacks against American lives and interests culminating in the 9/11 attacks when hijacked airlines, packed with passengers, were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Another plane was brought down in open fields by a brave but ultimately fatal passenger rebellion. Three thousand innocent people were killed that day.

Yet the Neoconservatives, the lunatic right wing of the Republican Party in power in the Pentagon and the White House at the time, still saw Saddam as the main enemy instead of bin Laden. After 9/11 they launched a justified invasion of Afghanistan where bin Laden had a safe haven and they came close to wiping him out along with his entire organisation. Holed-up in Tora Bora, with no possibility of escape, and with American bombers pounding the mountains with fuel-air bombs of devastating power, bin Laden wrote out his last will and testament. Then a miracle happened. The Americans scaled down their operations and left a route open for bin Laden to escape into Pakistan. He would live to spread terrorism for another decade.

In “Deafness Before the Storm” Kurt Eichenwald explains how the Neocons briefed against the CIA who in the days leading up to 11th September 2001 were frantically trying to alert the White House to the threat posed by al-Qaeda. Acknowledging bin Laden as the principal threat did not fit with Neocon priorities so they did everything they could to discredit the CIA warnings. You can read the full article here. Outright lies and denying facts was stock-in-trade to them, indeed Karl Rove is attributed with saying they made their own reality.

Dick Cheney was Secretary of Defence during George H W Bush’s Presidency, and Vice President to George W Bush. Donald Rumsfeld was Secretary of Defence to President George W Bush. Together, they regarded deposing Saddam during Bush 43 as unfinished business from Bush 41. The idea that after 9/11 they could still regard Saddam as a greater threat to America than bin Laden is extraordinary, but clearly they did. They diverted vital resources away from Afghanistan when US and allied forces were on the cusp of finally eradicating al Qaeda and they threw everything into a war against Saddam. A war predicated on the lie that Saddam was a threat to the West and to America when he was no such thing.

So that, on the 11th anniversary of 9/11, is the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld legacy to America. They could not have prevented it, let’s be realistic, the CIA did not have sufficient evidence of the exact nature and timing of the attack. But they could have snuffed out al Qaeda in December 2001. Instead, they let bin Laden off the hook. They let him get away. They let him plot terror against America and her allies for another ten years. And even though bin Laden is now dead, no thanks to them, al Qaeda has grown stronger and more dangerous with semi-autonomous organisations in several regions of the world. Thanks to Neocon stupidity we are all at greater risk than ever before and another 9/11 scale atrocity has a frightening inevitability about it.

As the IRA used to say, “We only have to be lucky once; you have to be lucky every time.”

Adam Smith’s Pin Factory, updated

Adam Smith would be horrified with what passes for an economy today. I have this image in my mind of his fellow Scotsman Billy Connolly indignantly bellowing “What the fuh?” as he regales an audience with some tale of outrageous observational humour. Adam Smith used real-life observations as well to illustrate his economic theories, a notch or two down from The Big Yin admittedly. But try it for yourself, look up at that statue of him peering down from his high plinth on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh and ask yourself if you can’t hear him shouting “Are you kidding me?” Because, really, it is unbelievable.

Here’s an example. To illustrate the benefits of cooperation and specialisation Adam Smith explained in “The Wealth of Nations” how pin manufacturing could be made more efficient. He noted that a factory employing ten men might produce upwards of 48,000 pins a day when one man working on his own would struggle to make twenty pins a day. He showed how self-interest was served by combining talents with those who might otherwise be thought of as competitors.

So let’s imagine a group of pin-makers were inspired by his insight. Let’s imagine they formed themselves into a company, bought machinery and set up a production line with each worker doing what he was best at, and as a result they multiplied their individual output many times over, just as Adam Smith had predicted. Then over the years as the company prospered they were able to buy a plot of land and build their own purpose-built factory on it.

Fast-forward to today. The Edinburgh Pin Company has provided a steady living for generations of pin-makers. The business couldn’t be in better shape: they have a strong market presence for a wide range of high quality products at reasonable prices, straight pins, map pins, drawing pins, safety pins; the company owns the factory and thus pays no rent; the partners all work in the company and draw wages that are fair but not exorbitant; there is cash in the bank and the company has no overdraft or mortgage and no investors to pay.

But as with so many businesses, the global financial meltdown has had its effects. Turnover is down as customers cut back on buying and so the company seeks out new markets and new products. They find a big new customer who wants to place a massive order which with their present equipment they can’t deliver on for price and quantity. Time for a major investment. For the first time ever they go to the bank for a loan. The bank says no. The fact the company can show a contract for sufficient sales to completely cover the sum to be borrowed matters not a jot. Despite the government having bailed-out the bank which is now majority-owned by the taxpayer, and the Bank of England issuing fresh reserves to facilitate additional lending by the banks for exactly this sort of need, this bank won’t play ball. There’s not enough money in it for them.

There is a way out though, the bank tells them: get listed on the stock market. And as luck would have it, the bank could help them with that. For a fee. Well, for a lot of “fee” actually. There is a lot more money in it for the bank than merely lending the company the money they need. In fact, by the time they’ve paid for endless lawyers, accountants and other special advisors, drawn up a prospectus and made relevant filings, signed-up with a team of brokers and been well and truly taken to the cleaners by the bank, they’ve used up all their cash reserves and the partners have all had to inject cash from their own private funds. “Don’t worry,” says the bank, “you’ll all be millionaires soon.” Ha.

Unfortunately, by all the measures the stock market uses to assess the value of a stock, the Edinburgh Pin Company comes out rather poorly. It’s capital is seriously under-utilised because while it owns extremely valuable land it earns no money from it because the company doesn’t bother paying rent to itself. Why would it? That’s silly. Nor is the return on investment good enough because the partners run the company to generate only a modest profit, enough to pay the bills and stay in business. And the biggest sin in the eyes of the market? They’re not deep enough in debt. Most normal people would think that not being up to your eyes in debt is a good thing, but investment bankers are not normal people. Looking at the assets and the level of turnover, the company ought to be able to borrow a substantial sum of money but it doesn’t owe a penny. All things considered, the stock market valuation is less than the partners might have hoped. It would still raise the cash needed to fund the expansion which is what they wanted to do in the first place and which is supposedly the point for a stock market anyway, so they go ahead.

The company is launched on the stock market, the partners get their money back and a bit more besides, and there is still plenty of cash left over to pay for the modernisation. For a while it all goes well and the new contract is being serviced and the new client couldn’t be happier. Everyone is upbeat. As a publicly listed company they now have some obligations to investors in a way they never had before when they were privately owned. They have to appoint a CEO and in the way of things, they have to pay top price to attract the best candidate. In order to ensure everything is done properly, they appoint a remunerations board and the bank helps them find suitable candidates for that too. As a larger company with more employees now, they are also subject to a whole raft of legislation they weren’t subject to before, employment, health & safety, that sort of thing. They also have to join a Pin Manufacturers trade association which replaced the Pin Marketing Board which Thatcher abolished years ago.

After their first year of trading as a publicly listed company, they issue their first annual report and hold their first annual general meeting. This is all a bit of a novelty for them, the report took a lot of time and effort to put together – and cost a lot of money – but holding the AGM in a posh hotel in London was a fun weekend away for them since they always used to have their annual meetings in Edinburgh. What they don’t know is that their company has come to the attention of a particularly savvy venture capitalist. He pores over the accounts with a shrewd investor’s eye. All those factors that keep the share price down are the same factors that could be leveraged to borrow a lot of money. Enough money in fact to buy the company. He approaches his favourite investment bank, they are a different creature to the retail bank that wouldn’t lend the company the money in the first place. They lend the venture capitalist as much as he needs on the basis that when he has taken charge of the company, he can sell off enough assets to repay the loan. And he only needs a 51% stake to control 100% of the company. The CEO can see his big pay-day coming too. He has packed the remuneration board with cronies and put in place a very nice incentive scheme should there ever be a takeover bid.

The stage is set. It’s fill-your-boots-time. After a brief and very one-sided take-over campaign the CEO recommends acceptance of the venture capitalist’s offer, not difficult to understand since the CEO stands to gain enormously if it goes through and nothing if it doesn’t. The take over goes through. The first CEO cashes-out a happy man, and the venture capitalist installs himself as the new CEO. He starts to make major changes to the way the company operates, not all of them work, some are disastrous in fact, but that’s no problem for him, he still gets his bonuses. He sells the land the factory is on to a subsidiary company for enough money to repay the loan he took out to buy the company with and Edinburgh Pin PLC now has to pay “fair market rate” for the premises. The situation is not helped when the health & safety consultant orders them to paint the walls pale green to reduce eye-strain on the workers but the union sues them for exposing the workers to paint fumes. Costs are escalating out of control, the final straw comes when an entire batch of thumb tacks is lost because the curvature of the dome was not in accordance with EU specifications.

The CEO seizes his opportunity. He closes the factory and sources everything he needs from the Far East. The company’s bottom line is now looking spectacular; operating costs are a fraction of what they had been and turnover is still the same. The share price sky-rocketed, his bonus that year was astronomical. On top of that, he sells the land for a fraction of its true worth to a company he secretly owned through an off-shore trust, demolishes the factory and builds an up-market gated housing estate. The company he outsourced production to has snapped up production capacity at other manufacturers as well and has now become a monopoly supplier. Prices go up and quality goes down. The customer loses out. It’s worse for the former partners. They are out of work and just have their very modest share of the proceeds to live on, with nothing to pass on to the next generation. The next generation is everything, they are all our futures, but they have been robbed of their inheritance. The banks, the CEO and all those involved in stripping this company of everything, whether entirely legally or at times breaking the law, all get away with it and live happily and richly ever after.

What would Adam Smith have made of all this? There used to be a pin manufacturing company that produced good quality products at affordable prices and which was able to compete in the marketplace. Now it no longer exists. Where did it all go wrong? How can we put it right again?