So. Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony.
It was a Triumph. After the Chinese display of might, with all the artistic integrity of a Red-Square parade of missile launchers, we got a fun, irreverent pop-concert from the UK.
After the Royal Wedding and the Jubilee, the world knows this moist North Atlantic archipelago can do pomp and circumstance. What this extravaganza showed the world is that a lot of the rock n roll which defines western civilisation is British, as is much of the technological and industrial inventions which make the modern world as it is. Britain is not a stuffy old country, we're fun. Come here and get pissed with us.
I could have done without the NHS love-in but that's by the by. The people are proud of our hospitals being state-owned, despite the fact they lead the world only in hospital acquired infections. Most artists are pinkos. I can live with their eccentricities, if they show the world that Britain is more than Guardsmen outside palaces. So what DID the world make of it?
The Washington Post: As the Olympics opens, Britain rocks
The Australian: Games Begin in British Spirit
The BBC has rounded up some of the rest.
Then there was the symbolism of the copper leaves, each nation contributing a small part, coming together into a magnificent whole the sum of which is greater and brighter than the sum of its parts. The tiny nations like Tuvalu sending a couple of Athletes stand equal to the mighty Americans or Chinese teams. Nations who exist in a state of war may end up competing in a spirit of friendship.
The scourge of international war is receding. For all the corporate bullshit, the Olympic games are part of a process that's bringing the world together to trade, compete and enjoy a diversity of cultures to the benefit of all. Britain has played a huge part in this process, even though we remain the most warlike nation on the planet.
Far from being a declining power, What the Olympic ceremony showed is a country at ease in its own skin, comfortable with a bit of self-mockery, happy to take risks. No other country would think to put its octogenarian head of state in a skit with James Bond, and have Mr. Bean ruin 'Chariots of Fire' for Sir Simon Rattle. Our soft power, from the BBC world service, and musicians to businessmen and scientists still matter on the world stage.
The final motif of Sir Steve Redgrave handing the torch to another generation of young Athletes, was well judged. Then Sir Paul McCartney got everyone participating - in a chorus of 'Hey Jude' Not a great chest-beating roar of a rising power but a celebration of the real Olympic spirit. Having lit the torch, everyone joined in, in Friendship, peace and competition.
Saturday, 28 July 2012
So. Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony.
Tuesday, 10 July 2012
Comment in moderation (unlikely to be published) at this post:
Ooh Goody. They’re privatising the NHS? Maybe I won’t die unnecessarily of Cancer, or wait four hours because no-one can be bothered to see me with a dislocated shoulder, until the target time runs out. Excellent. It will still be free at the point of delivery, so why, apart from vested producer interest and left-wing prejudice, would you oppose private, but state funded provision?
I note with interest you got the usual left-wing digs at “corporations” like Vodafone. I’m glad you admit you’re against efficiency and don’t want skilled nurses to offer simple services, but would rather ensure that someone wait to see a doctor. I had a bike accident outside my GPs surgery. The Doctor refused to apply a steristrip, and demanded I go to A&E 10 miles away. (and wait 4 hours).
This is an organisation run for bureaucratic convenience, not that of patients, infused top to bottom with the “more than my job’s worth” attitude of the public-sector The NHS is NOT the “envy of the world”. It’s a mediocre service 17th best despite the UK being 11th richest per capita. The NHS underperforms and is in desperate need of shaking up, if not breaking up.
With any luck the NHS will be privatised. And I will enjoy watching the wailing and gnashing of teeth from people who have been wrong on absolutely everything else, and are wrong on this too.Of course it's not just people not being patched up and sent on their way efficiently. It's an entire culture of bureaucracy. I've no doubt bits of the NHS are world-class. But the shop-window walk-in & A&E is grotesquely inefficient, and that's all I've seen first hand. And I can compare it against the similar systems in France, Germany, Canada and Norway, all of whom manage to achieve Triage without demanding everyone who isn't dying always waits 4 hours.
Sunday, 8 July 2012
What does "professional" mean? The dictionary defines it broadly as "doing something for money" but in a more narrow sense, being skilled. Even narrower is being part of a "profession" such as Doctors and Lawyers where it takes many years to acquire knowledge of the arcana. A professional is more likely to be self-employed and so have little job-security. The returns can be enormous, if they're good, but part of professional status is the willingness to forgo employment rights.
Friday, 6 July 2012
So, you're a stockbroker, and you've been in the game now for over a decade. You've got some fairly serious book-learning under your belt, and have experience across a wide range of businesses including buy and sell-side analysis, sales-trading and futures trading. You've been at your current desk for 7 years, and you guided your clients through the crash with some success.
You're not unqualified. The business is not unregulated. There was no systemic problem in the private-client stockbroking business.
However there was a crash. And lots of people lost money and are looking for someone to blame. The economy is stagnant (though this is mainly due to pre-crunch crowding-out coming home to roost). Everyone in the financial services industry without a regional accent and a job in a call-centre, is a "banker", and so "a cause of the crisis".
"Something must be done", said the politicians, without having the vaguest notion of what it was they wanted to achieve. So they asked the FSA to "do something". So the drones of the FSA, who regulated the banks so successfully over the past decade, asked the Professional bodies like the 'Chartered Institute of Investment Management' and the like, whether further regulation of the investment advice industry was needed.
"YES!" screamed the professional bodies. "All brokers need to be a member of Professional bodies [us]" they said with a straight face, "and they must all take lots of Exams [provided by us, for which we will charge many hundreds, knowing these people have no choice but to take them or lose their jobs]"
"Anything else?" Asked the failed banker with a 2:2 in media relations from Hull, who was rejected by the investment banks he really wanted to work for, instead of the FSA.
"Certainly. the brokers need to spend many hours logging their 'continuous professional development' on our system, so we can sign off their competence each year, by issuing an annual piece of paper called a 'Statement of Professional Standing', but only if they take lots of courses [provided by us, for which we will overcharge]".
"That seems a lot of work" said the FSA-wallah, overcome with sympathy for the non-problematic part of the financial-services industry which forms his bailiwick "won't that take them a lot of time they could spend
blogging tending to their client's needs?"
"No" lied the professional bodies. "This will improve the customer experience. All exams are good [even though we're STILL teaching them the CAPM which is, put simply, bollocks]".
The FSA-wallah reports back to the politicians that the regulation of investment advice is in hand. "This is something", say the politicians. "Let's do it".
Thus financial regulation gets more onerous, time-consuming and expensive. Clients will see higher bills, and find it harder to speak to their broker as he will be doing his mandatory 35 hours of logged annual CPD or inputting it into his chosen Professional body's computer system. It not being worthwhile to go through the process above for small clients, if you want advice, you'd better have serious wedge to invest, or you're on your own.
If you want a perfect example of regulatory capture working against the interests of (especially less-wealthy people), this is it.
The Retail Distribution Review is the most counter-productive piece of legislation I've ever seen. It's a Vicious, savage, bureaucratic, insane, corrupt over-reaction to a problem which doesn't exist. It will virtually ban those on average earnings from receiving decent financial advice. They will be driven instead into the arms of the Banks who will sell them "products" whose performance is utterly opaque, larded with fees which will be virtually impossible to get out of. The banks will call this "advice", but you will never see or hear from the hair-gel and bri-nylon school-leaver who sold you the "product", ever again.
You think the Banks fear tighter regulation? No. They want it. They lobbied for it. They NEED it. Regulation protects them from the likes of me. Wicked.
Thursday, 5 July 2012
Government is not inherently evil. Indeed it is necessary - anarchy is not a happy state of affairs. This is the difference between Anarchism, and Libertarianism: Somalia is not a standing retort to the principles of the latter. Nor are things like progressive taxes, welfare states or redistribution necessarily bad.
Even (or even especially) in meritocratic societies, much of one's station in life is overwhelmingly predicted by what your parents do. If they're smack-addled self-arguers, you're unlikely to become Prime-Minister. So, redistribution fulfils a fairness function - mitigating the gross dice-roll of fate which decided which womb bore you. Redistribution also reduces the risk of starting businesses - if you fail, you're not going to starve, so as a minimum standard of living can be guaranteed, people can on take more entrepreneurial risks. And as much business success is down to luck, this too is fair. There is an economic function to welfare. Welfare can also be seen as an insurance policy, preventing the rich ending up on a gibbet when the revolution comes.
The trick is to help the needy and unlucky while not damaging the incentive to work. Unfortunately, the British welfare state, with its vast bureaucracy of 72 separate benefits is a massive disincentive to work. Simplifying the benefits system, and aligning it with the tax system and make it simpler to claim, reducing the risk of lost benefits, when taking on short-term work. The Government's plans for a universal Credit are a step in the right direction.
Government has a role in infrastructure. It is naive to imagine a comprehensive network of Metalled roads would be provided by the private sector. Paths form naturally, but for them to be in decent condition, this is best provided collectively. A road on its own is worth less than the same road in a network.
The realm must be defended. Most countries don't have a handy English Channel, and whilst Britain Eschewed a standing army long after the rest of Europe had started conscripting, she did always have a big Navy and almost no states do without some form of military, even tiny Lichtenstein has paramilitary police. No-one would argue that private armies are a good idea. This is what made Medieval England so hard to Govern.
Defense morphs into law enforcement. A strong, central state through British history has tended to act as a protector of the peasants against their local potentates. The Royal Boroughs became wealthy for example because their liberties were guaranteed by the crown against the often rapacious demands of local barons. Where monarchies became defenders of the people against the barons in this manner - The UK, Scandinavia and much of Northern Europe, they tended to survive. It's clear therefore enforcing rules, especially on behalf of the weak against the powerful is a key role of the state.
A strong, effective state therefore is good for all except the most powerful. Economically, the benefits of a state listed above are demonstrated in the concept of the Rahn curve. If the state doesn't exist, you don't get much economy, let alone economic growth. But just as libertarians are wont to abuse the Laffer Curve to suggest that tax-cuts always bring more revenue, leftists are currently pretending more state spending will always generate growth. It doesn't, and here's why.
|An efficient package of tools|
It also means the costs lead to over taxation. The rich are mobile, and while they might enjoy London or Paris' cultural riches, there comes a point when they will bugger off, as Francois Hollande is likely to find out soon. It is tempting to blame 'the rich' because they are few in number and democracy can become the tyranny of the majority. If the rich "avoid" taxes, a problem existing mostly in the fevered minds of left-wing activists, it's because a ridiculously complicated tax-code allows them to. Simple, fair, progressive taxation is rarely avoided. Gordon Brown tried to use the Tax system as a control on the economy. He failed.
|Trying to do too much|
The answer is to use the state as an enabling tool, funding rather than providing. And this is the key to the success of the Nordic states, despite their high (eye-wateringly so) tax rates. I've no problem with state funded services. I've no problem with progressive taxation, and a welfare safety net. But these have limits. And we're at or beyond them now. The tool of the state has become unwieldy and inefficient because it tries to do too much.
Few would have a problem paying high taxes if the services delivered were up to scratch. And if they are not up to scratch, if there's a choice between competing providers, you still don't mind paying. You just take your tax-funded business elsewhere. This is why Sweden's state schools are so much better than ours - they aren't run by the state, and so don't have the bureaucracy to stifle good ideas, and are not completely captured by the producer interest.
Ultimately the standard of living, that we're trying to improve for as many as possible, equates to a measure of free income after tax, non-tax health and education costs, and transport. All of which government can influence. The USA may have low headline federal taxes, and variable state taxes but its citizens are expected to pay out the majority of the difference into a bloated private health system (the US health industry is as obscene as it is in part of ridiculous laws like those banning the sale of insurance across state lines, but that's another subject, for another day). So despite their low taxes, Americans are not greatly better off than western Europeans. It's not just about money.
It's impossible to live cheek-by-jowl without some collective decision making. So long as this is under democratic control, and uncorrupt, State action can mitigate certain behaviours which only become individually optimal in the absence of a collective alternative. For example, America rejected public transport almost entirely, in favour of the car facilitating (along with a large, underpopulated land-mass) urban sprawl which means Americans spend longer commuting than almost anyone else on the planet, something at the top of the list of misery-making habits. So a rejection of state action in favour of rugged individualism has forced Americans into a sub-optimal status quo and sitting in queues of traffic on the freeway, but feeling like they have no choice. Monopolies, like the near monopoly of car infrastructure in Los Angeles, are anywhere and always a problem.
So the idiot 'Libertarian' battle cry of "cut taxes now" is likely to mean people spend the savings from taxes on things that used to be provided by taxes and being forced into sub-optimal behaviour by the abandonment of some collective action. Inevitably taxes would also be spent on subsidising the poor's access to goods and services, so few are really any better off despite lower headline tax rates.
The trick therefore is to maximise everyone's utiltiy at minimum cost, and to do so whilst increasing everyone's freedom of action. And the best drivers of efficiency are markets. Free schools would create choice, whilst still being free at the point of delivery. There is no reason (apart from producer interest) to oppose privatised bits within the NHS. The internal market was abandoned, then resurrected by Labour, not for ideological reasons, but because it worked.
I've no problem with health care free (or free-ish) at the point of delivery funded from taxation because no-one has shown me any evidence that private insurance is more efficient. After-all insurance pools risk. Tax-funding pools risk better. However I do not believe the state, or any other monopoly to be any good at delivery. So break the NHS up, and let the patients choose where to be treated, whom to see as their GP, and let the funds follow those choices accordingly. All the regulator (NICE?) needs to do is say which treatments are available for free, and which need to be paid for out of your pocket, and then check they're up to a standard. The market can do the rest.
Where the real cuts need to come is in the vast, expensive bureaucracies managing and regulating our lives. Big business lobbies for tight regulation because this protects incumbents. Look at banking - a ridiculously tightly regulated industry from which innovation has been frozen by a cartel of self-interested Giants. These Giants are egged on by a regulator which encourages scale in the belief that big is better, and who do business according to the regulators idea of risk. And look where that go us. Deregulation cannot be the reason for the crisis because it's never been tried. A free market in banking (with a state guarantee for depositors, but not investors) would let a thousand flowers bloom. Bank failures need not be disruptive and would cause the banking industry to join the 21st century as crappy customer service would be punished by people moving. At present, I can't e-mail my bank and they still take 3 days to clear a cheque.
If you want to cut costs in Government, don't look at the transfer payments of the Education and NHS. The delivery of these is going to improve as markets penetrate industries which were once monopolies. If a state bureaucracy replaces an insurance bureaucracy, is that really worse? Look at the vast regulatory raj, with fingers in big business, local Government and cut that out. Focus remaining regulation on competition, not consumer outcomes (that's what a market's for...)- don't let anyone get a monopoly anywhere. Bust cosy cartels. Enable choices, stop protecting us from ourselves, and leave the results alone.
Ultimately the state needs to stop doing quite a lot of things its got used to doing. Why is there a public bureaucracy around sport? What is the DTI for except a conduit to Government for big business? Why are there laws demanding I wear a helmet on a motorbike or a seat-belt in a car? Why is there a 'War on Drugs'? Why can I not have a cigarette with a pint? Because our elected representatives decided to use an inappropriate tool to solve problems which are none of their business. The result is a state delivering shoddy services, yet which cost 50% of everyone's income.
This has become unsustainable. Much as I want taxes cut, I still want good public services and we need a balanced budget. However instead of cutting the Army to 82,000, why not cut the bureaucracy of the MoD? Instead of pruning branches, why not cut down the whole tree of the DTI? How about Stopping giving money to "charity" on our behalf? Why not Roll DfID back into the FCO? The list of unnecessary stuff the Government does is nearly endless. Slash the areas of the state whose sole purpose is to provide jobs for life for Unite members, and create markets in most of the rest. You may not see the tax burden go down much in the short-term, there are too many pensioners for that, but you may get more for your taxes and your children might be rich enough to be taxed less. In final analysis, Gordon Brown's spending splurge wrecked the rest of your economic life. It might not wreck your children's.
Monday, 2 July 2012
Regular readers will know I don't own a car, I hire one when I need one. Most of the time, I get a newish mid-range Ford or Vauxhall, and I think "this is an excellent piece of design and engineering which does the job of ferrying me about, efficiently and unobtrusively". Occasionally, I get upgraded. Sometimes it's a Bigger car, like the VW Passat, which was excellent. So good, I remember nothing about it except I'd have one over a Mercedes, so relaxing and comfortable was it to drive.
Dan Hannan blogging for The Telegraph, trotted out the comforting Tory euro-myth...
If the Tories refuse to give such a commitment [To hold a referendum], they will lose the general election... If they get this issue right, they will win...It's bollocks of course, as I argued a while ago. The electorate do not vote on the European issue in General elections. It is almost never (about 2%) given as a top 3 or 5 priority in polling. You may argue that "Europe" dominates the issues, 'the economy' and 'immigration' which always come on top, but the electorate simply don't see it this way. When asked, they express a broad hostility to the EU project, a desire for a referendum (the electorate is anywhere and always in favour of referenda), but no real enthusiasm for pulling out.
The EuroNutters simply can't grasp this. Yes, depending on how you ask the question, a plurality or even Majority of UK voters say they would like to leave the EU but THEY DON'T HOLD THIS POSITION VERY STRONGLY.
The other point I've been arguing for a while, so I am not matching my rhetoric to Tory policy as will be alleged. Indeed, Cameron has moved towards my position. NOW IS NOT THE TIME FOR A REFERENDUM. Simply put we don't know what we're leaving, and we might get what we want, a federal Eurozone core, and a looser periphery, led by the largest of the 'outs' The UK. Now in making this claim, I will be accused of being a closet Europhile and therefore a traitor, by people who think leaving the EU should be the Government's main priority. These people are idiots who imagine leaving is without cost (especially opportunity costs) and risk. It's all very well standing on the White cliffs of dover, imaginary Supermarine Spitfires roaring overhead, saying "Very Well, Alone!"
Unpopular on the Euorphile Lib-Dem Benches as it will be on the more frothing end of the Eurosceptic right, a renegotiation of our relationship THEN a referendum on the result, some time after the next election (hopefully when the economy is on the mend) is better than an in/out referendum now. However because this isn't a promise to hold a referendum to withdraw next Thursday, and dismantle the entire EU political machine in the UK by Thursday week, the Blazered golf-club bores of UKIP will not be satisfied. This policy will satisfy almost no-one who cares about the issue.
It's a good job almost no-one cares. Cameron is right. Renegotiate, and secure a commitment to hold a referendum on the result, when the time is right. It's problematic for a blogger, agreeing with an unpopular government who's moving along the right lines, despite the backbench headbangers and the press who are pressuring a Government into doing something stupid.
For those who think the Government's 'lost its way', this is another 'Big Issue' they've got right, assuming they can get this past the Liberal Democrats. On the cuts, taxes, benefits, schools and hospitals the Government's policies are an anathema to powerful vested interests, but not radical enough to appease the new intake of Tory MPs. The presentation, and attention to detail are lacking, but the big picture is looking good. It's just a shame no-one agrees.