Thursday, 30 July 2009

Life Is A Terminal Condition

The Royal College of Nursing on the basis of an internet response of 0.3% of their 390,000 strong membership have decided that their position on Assisted Suicide will be neutral in the future and not in opposition. I wonder how many nurses with particular religious principles may be struck off or have careers ruined for refusing to assist in cases where a patient, or the patients family or associates, want to end it all? More interesting is just who was involved in promoting this decision, why, and what representations were made to them? We shall never know, but we do know that in circles that exert influence there have been moves in the recent past to encourage euthanasia, if only to allow a marginal increase in GDP per head, and therefore claim economic growth. Inevitably, it is all alleged to be really quite simple in principle, and only a small number of cases will be involved. Where have we heard that one before? Then we are amazed at how many more occur.

As if our Parliamentarians haven’t found themselves in enough messes, including being invited by the Government to surrender their constitutional rights to the judiciary, the risks are that they might now make of muck of the more basic business of life and death. Many of us older persons probably can recount the errors of judgement and moments of insanity that might have resulted in The End, without the rolling credits. There are some who have narrowly survived the same made by medical staff, but now we have to face those about to be made by lawyers and human rights activists.

John Mortimer, the wonderful writer, humanist, and perceptive commentator on our world was reckoned to be well towards the Left in his philosophy, but was violently against any suggestion of euthanasia or “assisted suicide”. He was a lawyer by trade, but he had served in many Probate cases, and had realised that when money, wills, legacies, and families or others, often members of the clergy, were involved, those concerned were liable whatever their background, education, or other qualities, to relapse into a primeval state of predation and determination to take all they could get imaginable. Civilisation and conscience would be lost at the moment the possibility of a valid death certificate arose. John was certain that if euthanasia etc. became possible and legal, the same would occur whether death was possible or even improbable.

An uncle who became aware that a local clergyman who was ever willing to turn up in the last days of a parishioner often arrived with a will form from the local stationers and witnesses in need of indulgences. Because of his zeal in hounding the local diocese for justice, we came to know my uncle as “The Willfinder General”, but he did save carers from destitution and others from serious loss, at the cost to the clergy of their regular trips to the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The issues have become more complicated in recent decades as reliable food supplies, better housing overall, and advances in medicine and science have kept most of us alive for longer. The price of this has been many people surviving to a great and infirm age, despite serious conditions, or in some cases major handicaps. By the use of high technology a human being can be kept in a state of half life, or at the margin of death for long periods, albeit at high cost. Theoretically, it is these cases that the idea of euthanasia and the connected assisted suicide has come to be regarded as a palliative by some, and a good vote winning wheeze by others.

The trouble is how do you make the decisions at the margins? How many cases will be at the margins? Who will effectively be making the decision? Who will advise those about to die of the full implications? If any money at all is involved then how far will Mortimer’s Law apply, “Where there’s a will there’s a way”? The figures mooted at present are suggested to be small and only really the very difficult cases. But only it would take only a slight shift of the margins of decisions to send the actual figures much higher up the curve.

If your nearest and dearest start going on about how they need a special holiday or a wonderful Christmas to remember, or a new car, or how they are troubled by heavy debts incurred in their lifestyle, and then offer to help with the medication, go out and spend every penny you can and make a new will leaving what is left to the donkey sanctuary. That will teach them!

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Your Tax Break Is My Tax Increase

The UK government has just installed Direct Rule over the Turks and Caicos Islands as a result of a report to the effect that there has been widespread corruption, and extensive malpractice in its governance. The Islands are one of a number of tax havens in the region dependent on the finance sector, tourism, and all that goes with these activities. Wikileaks has a good deal of information. There is little or nothing to be found in the UK Media, despite so much of our wealth being churned around the many computer servers on the Islands.

Many of the locals are not happy, and have declared their opposition to British Rule. Quite how far they will go is yet to be decided. It all looks very messy. They now want to throw off the yoke of colonialism, and the last thing our Government needs is another messy potential military commitment, especially in the Caribbean.

What is not mentioned is one of the other local difficulties that came to light this week with the lost of a Haitian vessel full of refugees off the Islands. The tragedy of Haiti has led to large numbers of its people taking small boats to reach other places and the many other communities in the area and Florida now have a substantial Haitian underclass who do the low paid work and live in very poor conditions. But at least they can find food.

Just before the crisis emerged the Institute of Directors urged upon the Government and the Chancellor of the Exchequer that instead of clamping down on tax avoidance (and evasion) the UK should actively compete with tax havens in a race to the bottom for tax breaks for the wealthy and the high rollers.

This is what they mean, culled from a Turks and Caicos web site:
Oh my word, if the Government followed the Institute of Directors recommendations that our nation should follow the example of the Turks and Caicos Islands just how would UK budget be managed, notably the large fiscal deficit, given the impact on revenues?
But if we now have direct rule, perhaps the Government should make it a UK local authority, and part of the UK, much as the French do with some territories, freeze all the accounts and levy taxes accordingly. Then things will get really interesting.

Are the Royal Marines on standby?

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Elections, Franchises, And Voting Systems

Suddenly, there is a rush for constitutional change, or rather more of it, and fast. Quite why in the last twelve years these matters have not been dealt with is an interesting question, but then property speculation does take up a lot of time. It seems that now, according to The Guardian, electoral reform is a matter of most urgent importance.

Just over fifty years ago, I recall a discussion led by Dr. William Pickles, a political guru of his time much consulted by others. He was one of those who helped to churn out all those wonderful constitutions that brought so much happiness, peace, prosperity and security to former colonies. Also, he played a part in advising the French on how a new Fifth Republic would be so much better than the old and discredited Fourth. I think he changed his mind after General De Gaulle was elected in 1962 and opted for a directly elected Presidency, but there you go. To give him credit, he did not charge consultancy fees; it was enough to be highly regarded in academic circles. There was someone called Ralph Miliband sitting in, if only to police our thoughts, I wonder what happened to him.

This is not the place to go over all the many voting systems that might be employed in Britain in the 21st century and the difficulties of what exactly we might do. Our present system has had some very unsatisfactory consequences, notably the way in which representation at Westminster has been distorted both within all the major parties in comparison with the political realities around the country. If anything, this has worsened in recent decades.

So how and why do we go about changing the system and to what effect? One big problem is that the Government that does change the system has to believe, and the political system has to realise that the time has come. It would be better if a large majority of the people also believe, but our present system does not allow much for truth, or reason, or reality, so what the people are told is what the present ruling establishment wants them to know.

The Federal Republic of Germany was born in 1949 out of the collapse of the Third Reich in 1945 and direct rule by the Allied Powers. It became sovereign in May 1955 (I was there). The Fifth Republic of France was born out of the collapse of the Fourth Republic in the stress of decolonisation and war in 1958. Whether the UK at the moment is in a state of collapse at present or only on the brink is another question. The upshot of our discussion was that whatever the merits of changing the UK voting system were, it was unlikely in practical terms to come about unless there were some particular political imperatives of benefit to the government that introduced the relevant legislation.

So what gives with the government and the urge to change the voting system now? Is it that they are looking at a Labour party in the Commons of perhaps less than 100 members after 2010? Is it because some of the High Tories are talking about dismantling most of the structure of the non-elected Quango’s and regional bodies that have provided a huge client structure for the Labour Government?

Is it because they hope that if the Tories get less than 50% of the vote and therefore MP’s Labour might then be able to wreck any programme the Tories might have, because they will then have to trade policy for support from other parties? Is it because such a new Parliament with changed allegiances would become too chaotic to allow the Tories to do much at all in any way? Is it because if the Lisbon Treaty becomes effective Labour will be able to control any rule through its European connections? If these are the reasons for changing the system, then we all better worry. Firstly, we could all benefit from looking at what happened under the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1920’s, which led to the rise of the Nazi’s, and the hapless Fourth Republic of France which staggered from crisis to crisis between 1946 and 1958.

We know that the Labour Government does not do “history”, but those of us who do are all too aware of just how easy it is for a debtor state under foreign domination and unable to make effective decisions can go into long lasting and utter collapse.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

Harry Patch

The last Tommy has gone, and no more will march again. Harry of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry would have been in the line at Passchendaele in September 1917 at the same time as my grandfather, of the King's Liverpool. Harry was injured by shrapnel from shellfire, grandfather picked up a dose of mustard gas, but he was to return to Arras in time of the German Offensive of March 1918. His great grandfather stopped one at the Battle of Corunna in January 1809, but survived, with the 43rd Light Infantry, and the old 32nd, forerunner to the DCLI was in the line with them. I wonder if any of Harry's were there with him as well.
At the going down of the sun...............

Thursday, 23 July 2009

The Electrification Of The Union

The election campaign is beginning to be serious. There is now a plan to electrify the main line from London Paddington to Swansea, accompanied by another to do the same for the main connection between Manchester London Road and Liverpool Lime Street. As George Thomas observed in the 1960’s when the closure of the rambling scenic line from Craven Arms to Swansea was suggested, it passes through a number of marginal constituencies.

Quite why is has taken all this time to realise that the Paddington routes had good potential for electrification is a mystery, unless you take into account the long obsession with the East and West Coast Main Lines which dates back to the old Board of Trade and since. Almost all of the former Southern Railway routes were done, to meet the imperatives of intensive short haul commuter traffic, but unluckily on the third rail system which is restrictive and unsuitable for fast long haul services. When British Rail was created in 1947, to take over a run down system in need of full scale investment and renewal, there were those who realised then that electrification was the way to go. But between the politics, the outside vested interests, and critically, the failure to create a management organisation that could do the job that was needed, meant that all the opportunities were lost.

No doubt there will be other promises made here and there of what might be done. Will there be associated proposals to electrify the old Midland Railway main lines between Bedford and Leeds through Leicester, Derby, Sheffield, and Nottingham, and perhaps restoring the old Leicester to Rugby line as a key link? One could go on and on.

But what all this does is to distract attention by offering up relatively inexpensive projects to draw attention away from the rather greater problem. Electrified lines need power, and there is every chance that electrical power may soon be in short supply. This is not an accident about to happen, it is a hugely expensive complex set of problems that came over the horizon almost twenty years ago and has been coming closer ever since. A good many nuclear power stations are near the end of their life, and new ones take a decade at least to build, even if you have your own nuclear industry. The sort of coal fired ones that are being built almost by the week in China, also take time, and come with some very difficult environmental problems.

So we have wind mills, a subject of fierce controversy. But they are not the answer either, only a subsidiary source at best, and nor are some of the other bright ideas. Using all the land we have to grow biofuels creates another set of issues in a world where the population rapidly increases, but the crop yields do not. To rely on foreign oil and gas means becoming dependent on the suppliers, and on their political masters. When Moscow says jump, Westminster will jump, in concert with Europe.

The USA are not much better placed than we are, indeed much of their infrastructure for electrical supply needs renewal and reorganisation, without the money, the political will, or the commercial incentives to do it.

There is one possible answer, for us all to cut our power consumption by up to 40%. Because if we do not do it, it will be done for all of us in the shape of power cuts, and not even the trains will be running.

It is enough to bring a smile to the face of Lenin.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Michael Parkinson Is Uninteresting Say The BBC

Michael Parkinson is not interesting, say the BBC, or rather his family aren’t. A pity really for those of us who have become a little fed up with his relentless Barnsley persona that “Who Do You Think You Are” claim to be unable to find any relieving quality in the mix. In recent generations it seems that most of them have been the hewers of wood and the drawers of water, to get Biblical about it, as many of them would have understood. Parky’s were miners, domestics, and such and not much else back to the great grandparents and perhaps beyond.

But might he be related, or indeed descended from the Robert Parkinson of Hull, an Ordinary Seaman, or the Thomas Parkinson of Leeds, Yorkshire, who was a Royal Marines Private, at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805? There were four others of that surname, including interestingly a Quarter Master from Greenock, and another from Southwark, so Parkie might even be a southern softie after all who has just returned to his roots in his maturity. One who is close to me had family from London and Hampshire who finished up North in Yorkshire, accents and all, and in the mining industry, and listed amongst the accident victims. One of the family lived along the road from Jane Austen, and worked at the local paper factory. Another helped burn down the local workhouse and got a free ticket to Australia. There were others I know who were recruited from the poverty stricken of the fields of East Anglia.

Then there were the seven Parkinson’s listed for the Waterloo Medal, those listed in Burke’s Gentry, and a few others dotted about. Certainly there were many of them in the male line in Yorkshire, but their marriages may well have turned up one thing or another. During the 19th Century there was a very great deal of downward social mobility if you want that sort of thing.

As someone who has done time in this area of historical research, as well as others, my view is that either the BBC did not try very hard, or they have another agenda. Certainly, they look for the exotic, and also for the recent migrants, but what has been signally absent from most of their programmes are the missing millions of the ordinary working population from the time before, the early 19th, the 18th and 17th Centuries. You have to work hard at it, and you have to really know your history. Yet for those who have delved more into any or all or them as far as possible, there can be intriguing stories. Try the sicklemakers of Moorholes for one, the lead miners of Derbyshire for another, the Luddite shearmen of the West Riding, the toilers in the liquorice fields of Pontefract, as well as the linen weavers of Barnsley.

It is surprising what can turn up. The Bagshawes were lead miners, and one family did well, rising to gentry status. They are easy enough to find, they are in the ancestry of HM The Queen from her maternal side. So if Parky has a Bagshawe in the generation where he might have 2048 ancestors, as he might well have, then he was related to the Queen Mum, but that would never do for the BBC, would it?

Monday, 20 July 2009

Mandelson - Keeping It In The Family

The new bill introduced to deal with some constitutional matters has created a flurry in interest, notably relating to Mr. Peter Mandelson, late of this parish, now Baron of Foy (the people there were not asked) and Hartlepool (famous for hanging a monkey, and the people there were not asked either). The discussion is concerned with speculation as to his ambitions, in that there is a clause suggesting that Life Peers can renege or regurgitate or something to go back to being common.

My personal view is that with the expulsion of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords, the next step is to end the hereditary head of state, that is the monarchy. To do this Mandelson is better positioning himself in the House of Commons, as MP possibly for one of Labour’s London or Yorkshire Rotten Boroughs, from which he might then rise to be our first President Mandelson, when the time is ripe.

In the meantime, however, he will have to do something else, and either in addition to being First Secretary of State and all that it is suggested that he has the fond hope of following in Grandad’s footsteps, or rather boot prints, to become Foreign Secretary. Grandad, if you did not know, was Herbert Morrison, who dedicated his life firstly to gerrymandering the map of London to make it safe for socialists, and secondly to becoming the grey eminence of the cabinet and Attlee’s successor. He did not entirely succeed. Where he did succeed was in being a pain in the neck all round, and a thoroughly destructive influence in the body politic.

It must be in the genes

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Premier League - Man U Transfer News

The 50% tax on personal incomes having deterred foreign players from moving to England has impacted on the Premier League transfer market this summer. So Manchester United have made a spectacular swoop for the entire defence of the Newton Heath Railways Club paying two years supply of Boggart Dark Mild in advance. Alf Ainsworth, Bill Burnham, Bert Blears, Fred Darling, Sam Straw, and Ebenezer Johnson, are said to be overjoyed at the chance of playing on a pitch with a lot of grass. They will be paid four times the minimum wage, with travel expenses, free kit, sponsored bicycles, and full national insurance. During the summer they will be able to learn trade skills in light maintenance work on the Old Trafford Stadium.

Season ticket prices will rise to £3000 a year, because of extra financing costs, the need for additional policing, and pay-offs to agents of past players. Sir Alex Ferguson has agreed to double up as physio’ and bookies runner in addition to his ordinary managerial duties.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Swine Flu - Another Pig In A Poke

Our government, having so many expensive and catastrophic bungles on its CV in recent years, now has another in the making. One of the earliest signs that it is really worried and headed for a major crash is that on 14 July it wheeled out Hugh “Shampoo” Pennington, its tame oil based scientist from Aberdeen to reassure the nation that all will be well, and there is not really much of a problem.

Pennington, appearing in the Governments propaganda sheet, “The Guardian” treated us all to an exercise in basic statistics as they appear to relate to Swine Flu. His cut and shuffle was very expert, reminding me vividly of the dealer in a poker school I once sat in on, whose performance was wonderfully convincing, but marred by the fact that only he seemed to draw a decent hand. With any ordinary flu, it seems, we can expect 41,000 deaths, so if only around that is recorded for Swine Flu, then hey guys what are we all worried about? But within hours, the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Liam Donaldson, is suggesting an estimate of 69,000.

As anyone who has trawled the Bills of Mortality of the past could tell you, it all depends on how the death is recorded, who is doing the recording, and the definitions of cause. Senile Debility, Apoplexy, Fever, Dropsy, etc. all describe but do not inform. The detail and reality can take a good deal of time and trouble, and post mortems have been cut (sic) and access to many forms of testing discouraged. Now to reduce the work on doctors, we are told that there is to be a new procedure for “fast tracking” documentation on deaths. So where did they go to work this one out? The legal records on the Harold Shipman case perhaps?

What guidance is to be given? Already it seems that if anyone is ill, or has an issue and then swine flu comes along to finish them off, then it is not the flu that is the medical reason, it is the other complaint. But in recording in the past, if it was the flu that was listed, and not necessarily in all cases, then the figures now will not be comparable with the past. But there are more expert views than mine.

The Flu Mortality Formula is potentially misleading is a lead in Science Daily. A standard calculation used in forecasting potential numbers of deaths during the swine flu pandemic risks misleading healthcare planners by being open to both over- and under-estimation of the true figures, say the authors of new research published in the British Medical Journal.

The proportion of people who die due to infection during an influenza outbreak - known as the case fatality ratio - is calculated by dividing the number of deaths by the total number of cases in the same time period. Early data from the current swine flu pandemic suggested that the new influenza A (H1N1) virus causes mild disease, with case fatality ratios of around 0.5%, or 5 deaths per 1000 people infected.

However, the researchers from the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis & Modelling at Imperial College London, say this ratio may not be accurate. They highlight three reasons for the inaccuracy. Firstly, that the total number of deaths during this pandemic is being underestimated because the cause of death is not correctly attributed to swine flu (e.g. influenza can temporarily increase the risk of vascular events, such as heart attacks).

Secondly that as the pandemic progresses, the total number of cases tends towards underestimation, as people presenting with milder symptoms may not be tested or visit a doctor at all, leaving only the most severe to be reported.

Thirdly, that the 'snapshot' calculation does not take account of the time delay between infection and death, thus leading to the false impression that the infection is actually becoming more severe as the pandemic progresses.

Dr Tini Garske, lead author of the study from the MRC Centre for Outbreak Analysis & Modelling at Imperial College London, said that: "Accurately predicting the severity of this swine flu pandemic is a very tricky business, and our research shows that this can only be achieved if data is collected according to well designed study protocols and analysed in a more sophisticated way than is frequently being performed at present.”

"If we fail to get an accurate prediction of severity, we will not be providing healthcare planners, doctors and nurses, with the information that they need to ensure they are best prepared to fight the pandemic as we head into the flu season this autumn.” The research was funded by a Medical Research Council UK Centre grant.

So Pennington declares for the Government, ignoring basic research that has been done the road a few minutes down the road from Whitehall. This is not the only problem they may have to face. The major epidemics of the past did not take place in economies where much is done on a “just in time” basis, or both medical and community facilities were tightly staffed and bound to particular targets. Also, there is now a far higher number and proportion of the aged and infirm subject to “community in care” dependent on carers who rush from one to another, and with no spare capacity in hospitals or what remains of care homes. And for other reasons much of the population may have respiratory systems in far worse shape than in even the recent past. Even if there is not death, there could be serious damage.

Whatever the calculations, large numbers will be affected to one degree or another, so the disruption may well be immense, and given the way things are organized these days, and the typical way of working, very damaging. There is to be a vaccine, but when and where is still open to question. So where will Parliament be for three months? Playing the property market in repossessions? Where will the government be? Electioneering? What lengths will the government go to in order to spin the figures and the shambles that could happen?

It is almost enough to give one apoplexy.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Called To Account

So the tickets deal pays off, and the cheque is bulging in my wallet, as I put on the best hat and head for town. I got enough to spend time at Shanghai Lil's. OK, the signboard says different, but downtown signboards cover a lot of sins. It is a jumble of letters that don’t mean much, but a guy in a bar told me in the old Hittite script in means place of human sacrifice, so things have not changed.

Sidestepping the charity collectors outside, I get through the doors with all the small change and look around the service bars. There is some real action going on, they are hot on life insurance, promising big money if you live forever. Subject to conditions of course.

So I stand there a while, just holding on to the cheque and the credit slip, and take in the play. Suddenly there is a slim blonde by me, even better looking than a footballer's moll. Then there is a husky tempting voice, "Can I help you in any way?"

I take a long deep breath and consider the choices. This could get interesting. "We have a new machine that makes it so easy" she whispers. This worries me some. Ever since that experience with the trampoline, I avoid machines in close personal encounters.

She guides me into a small room with not so many people, points and says "Touch that". It is a bank machine, sadly, you touch the screen and it plays games with you.

So I put in the slip and the cheque and out comes a pretty piece of paper. I put it away carefully, Big A is keen on the detail. Mistakes mean cold porridge in the morning and not a welcoming fry up.

Then I smile at the blonde. "So how long have you been with us?" she asks. At Shanghai Lil's they are not so good on the detail these days, which is why I have to spend so long there. "8th August 1954", I rap out. "Since the Army thought I would be better off working somewhere else after the Court Martial." "Gosh", she says, "Not many people remember the first time." I think she is still talking about banks.

And that was the end of it. Quite way she didn't make the big play on life insurance, I do not know, it sort of hurt my feelings. Outside, the charity collectors had stopped collecting and a lone guy was picking up pieces of paper dropped in their excitement by people leaving Shanghai Lil's. I thought this was worth praise. "Good to see a man working for the community" I says. He flashed a large collection of gold teeth, "Eet isss moy dutty as a gud sittyzen" he says with a thick Russian accent.

Back at the ranch, I give Big A the bank chit, and head for the games room. I am just playing the "Overthrow The Government" game running on the Army web site, when a screaming Big A comes at me hard. It’s even worse than when I buy a lottery ticket, and she finds out. This time it is not me. This is a great relief.

It is the chit from the machine at Shanghai Lil's. It has copied the entire credit slip and the cheque in perfect detail, with a lot of other numbers. Big A tells me anyone getting hold of this would have the story of my life in minutes. This is bad news. My life has been an eventful one. How many other people have spent a night on the run from the police of five counties? And only for a couple of large doors. OK, they were the West Riding of Yorkshire Police HQ doors with some fancy signs we thought would look nice in the club house, but why the big fuss?

Big A is firmly of the opinion that present banks are bad for people. So I try my luck and suggest lottery tickets. OK, it will be cold porridge in the morning. And I will have to make up for it. So tomorrow I go down to town again, and help the well dressed Russian pick up some paper outside Shanghai Lil's. He may know a place where I can find a real bank.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Education, Or Something

My alma mater is not one of your ivy clad listed buildings laden with ancient symbols and festooned with reminders of past elites. It is now a collection of the grimmer examples of building of the last 120 years or so, and whilst architects may have been involved in some cases, my bet is that they took the money and ran. In my time there were only two, but the establishment has spread like a nasty rash over several blocks over the many decades since.

There are a small number of portraits of those who presided over it in the past. All were and are good and worthy gentlemen, and those who look up at them have no idea of who they were and why their pictures are hanging in this most forlorn part of the oldest building. It could be the Easter Island of central London.

But one thing is certain, the place lays claim to be a major player in The Knowledge Economy, and as the economy as a whole is shrinking, and the fiscal consequence of the crunch take effect, they are very worried. It is not just that so many graduates this year will not be getting the jobs they hoped for when they started, and for many there will never be that many jobs available ever again in the relevant sectors, it is more difficult than that.

Like many other UK colleges, it has come to rely on a great many foreign students taking up places, and paying maximum fees. Clearly, given the situation it may well be that the numbers may drop sharply. There are adjustments, downwards, taking place in many higher educational establishments. In the meantime, it appears that 50,000 UK school leavers who would have gone into a job or something are looking at other options, including any old university place that might be had. But because of the way the budgets are looking, they are not available.

So the cry is on, that for the sake of The Knowledge Economy, which they claim will be critical to the economy of the future, the universities should be bailed out to take on all these students to fill up all those vacant places in media studies, creative accounting, various sorts of sundry business things, and a whole new raft of social and public sector spin offs that arose in the last couple of decades.

To pay for all these marginal entrants to universities is a hugely expensive gamble, if it is the state and the taxpayer who will pick up the bill. One way or another it is a very bad form of unemployment relief. Either paying for them, or requiring them to fork out for three to four years of study in subjects with no guarantees at the end, and may be in activities that have been post dated by the time they qualify, is not exactly “investment” in either the Knowledge Economy or any other.

The salient problem is that the universities and their idea of Knowledge (trust me I’m a philosopher) lies signally in the past. My alma mater, while apparently trying to keep up with all of this and that, does seem to be rooted mentally in a kind of late 1990’s, turn of the millennium mind set as to how things could and should work. But things are changing fast in so many unexpected ways.

There are some bits of stuff that still remain from my early education of sixty years ago. Latin grammar is much the same, but English seems not what it was, if you know what I mean. A great deal else has changed radically, and not just once, I have had to readjust patterns of thought and basic assumptions too often to be sanguine about knowing what I think I know. What I am sure about is that the pace of change is increasing. It is going to be a rough ride in the next decade or two and I will have to make many more changes in mindset and world view.

It is likely that very many higher educational establishments could face problems of contraction that will be difficult to manage. For my own alma mater, it is all too likely that it will be the oldest buildings that will be the first to go, and nobody at all will miss them.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Development Is Unsustainable

Posted by Luis De Sousa on the “Oil Drum” web site on Saturday 11 July 2009, it is saying something most of us have forgotten, that the planet is finite and so is our future.
The post says:
"The other day I got an e-mail from someone with The Economist asking me to participate in an on-line forum/discussion on that science fiction figure called Sustainable Development.

Someone at this popular economics publication followed the series on the European Elections that was published here and at the European Tribune. This time, instead of graphs and analysis, I opted for something a bit different.

Consulting an on-line Dictionary, a definition for Sustainability can be retrieved as the ability to perpetuate existence. In the same resource the definition for Development will be given as growth or progress. A concept gathering these two words together forms what the Greeks termed an oxymoron, an idea devoid of logical sense. Can Sustainable Development be sustainable? Naturally not, for merging together two antonymous concepts, it simply cannot exist.

So why is this oxymoron in the order of the day? Why does it get such attention? Why are so many so willing to discuss it so passionately?

Sustainable Development is one of several philosophical concepts (having as much eeriness as mythology) that emerged in the wake of a series of decades of breathtaking, unprecedented growth. Growth as in development, the physical expansion of the Human-sphere, its population and interactive processes with nature, harnessing energy and concentrated matter, deploying waste heat and dispersing matter. These mythological concepts are simply a reflex of a society intoxicated with growth in front of the first signs of physical constraints to its development.

Sustainable Development became the language of those that promise perpetual growth, and more, the profits that should come along with it. It is the language of those that do not want to reconsider their way of life. Of those who expect the XXI century to be the same as the XX century. Of those that expect to run all the cars on french fry oil or firewater. Of those who call Carbon Capture and Sequestration an energy source. Of those who promote the Hydrogen Economy, forgetting about the Nuclear energy system for which it was conceived. Of those touting Nuclear as Salvation. Of those touting Nuclear as Condemnation.
Of those who expect Carbon Trading to reduce the OECD's dependence on OPEC. Of those dreaming with a CO2 atmospheric concentration of 1000 ppm by 2100, accompanied by a 6ÂșC global temperature rise. Of those saying that the Earth's hydrocarbons are not fossil fuels. Of those drilling their way forward. Of those waiting for the Free Market to replace Fossil Fuels. Of those thinking all they need is changing light bulbs to continue living in 400m2 cardboard houses. Of those claiming to be in their hands a reduction of Fossil Fuels consumption.
Sustainable Development is the philosophy of those fooling themselves, thinking that the Earth is flat, refusing to accept that the planet is a spherical object and thus finite. Of those refusing to face reality, refusing to wake up from their dreams.
A decade from now Sustainable Development will be out of the agenda. By then the word of the day shall be Survival. The Survival of a Culture, a Social and Political Framework, a Civilization.
Hopefully some will be able to wake up in time, leave the intoxicating dreams behind and face reality, however grim. Because then they'll be able to devise a New Future. A Better Future. A Future founded on the real physical entities that run through our Economy, not in abstract, growth dependent, illusions. A Future where each man and woman have their place and are not enslaved by a spiral of virtual accumulation and spending.

A Future where having more than the next man isn't a goal in itself. A Future were work and excellence are rewarded by things that have real physical and meta-physical meaning.

A Future."

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Racking And Rolling The Swiss

Whilst all this grim and stupid nonsense has been going on in the UK media, there is much bigger and more important business out there, and not only in the wastes of Afghanistan. The USA is still running a real financial crisis and now needs to look for money fast; especially what it thinks is its own money. How long will it be now before the USA Marine Corps are marching along the Ramistrasse in Zurich, singing as they go a variant on their old marching song?

“From the streets of Old Manhattan to the banks of the Zurichsee,
We have demanded all our tax returns, for the dollar currency.”

It seems that the President is after tax information, spurred on by the increasing deficit in the fiscal situation, and his main target is the Swiss UBS (Union Bank of Switzerland) which has been advising many of the high wealth Americans of ways and means of paying little or no tax. The key is what arrangements are made and what devices have been employed, and more to the point how do they avoid or evade US tax laws.

For this the US Internal Revenue Service (IRS) wants the essential information, but citing Swiss Banking Law, the UBS is unwilling to divulge the names of its clients, let alone the details of their financial situation. The Financial Crimes web site, at the has been commenting on this, and it could be getting ugly. One issue is if the USA will confiscate the UBS operations stateside. That would really throw the fondue in the fan.

What is interesting is why the USA is going after the Big One at an early stage, and not one of the many smaller entities closer to home. There are enough dotted about in the Caribbean area, and elsewhere for them to lean on. The trouble there is that it would mean taking on the UK. Clearly the Crunch situation means that they will have to take care in the Pacific area, so it may be if they can force the Swiss to back down, the US will then begin to roll up the rest, and then leave just a few awkward cases to be dealt with in detail. It would also give the USA a moral victory over Europe, in that much of the Swiss operations are linked to others just across their borders.

In the meantime the UK government have had to come up with a scheme for new regulation, and whiles brave words are being spoken, the reality is the usual rare muddle of political fixing married to the desire not to offend the bankers too much, only just enough to persuade some voters that the proposals are for real. The truth is that the proposals are a mess, and will create a worse mess. They ought to be worried, because if I was in Washington DC, after Zurich, my next major target would he the City of London, scene of some of the most rampant and unprincipled malpractice in the financial world, aided and abetted by the Treasury, the Bank of England, the regulators, and the media.

Personally, I have some affection for Switzerland. Back in 1951 on my first visit during a time of rationing, uncertainty, and shortages in Britain, I saw a world where it could be clean, food was to be had, and you could just go into a shop and find something to buy that wasn’t shoddy or cost the earth. Moreover the efficiency of the railway was astonishing, and electric. Back in the UK the newly nationalised British Railways were throwing the investment budget on bigger steam engines for selected prestige main lines and to hell with the rest of the system.

In fact my favourite TV programme is Swiss Railway Journeys on Sky TV Travel, a lovely world where things work, it is all localised, devolution is real, and is spoiled only by a few banks that have picked up nasty habits from other countries. If the Swiss government really wants to face up to America then it should ask its banks to hand over all the information, and copy it to the international media. The fall out from this would be spectacular.

Then we could all sit back and watch the fun.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Elections, Summits, And Spin

The downside of a long memory is the occasional waking nightmare. Could it happen again? Could a no hope unelected Prime Minister who ran a government in real trouble come back to win an election that everyone expected him to lose?

In January 1957 after the disastrous venture into Suez, Eden had resigned and Harold Macmillan took over. For the media and the general public it had been assumed that Rab Butler would be PM, but insiders and party placemen ensured that it was Macmillan as the “safe” option, and even he wondered if he might last only six weeks given the mess he had inherited.

Despite the turmoil, Macmillan hung on, and began to establish himself in the media as a bluff, cool headed expert man of the world, who knew his way around. Quite unlike the busy, worrying modern technocrat determined to change everything that Hugh Gaitskell appeared to be. Having seen them both at close quarters before gatherings that were knowledgeable and critical, my view was that Hugh was more honest than most in many ways but dogmatic and flawed in his simplicities. Harold was a neurotic shyster.

The economy turned down sharply after the post Suez oil shock. The nuclear protestors were gaining strength and others were anxious. Some progress had been made since 1945 to increase secondary education, but now it was demanded for all. Race riots had occurred. Local elections were going Labour’s way, and the media was unsure and uncomfortable with government with thirty five Old Etonians, unelected peers, and others who seemed to be appointed for money and not merit. There were suggestions of cronyism and too great a closeness of financial interests.

In the Autumn of 1957 there was a serious flu epidemic, Asian Flu, related to our modern swine flu, or so I am told. Then at the beginning of 1958 three key finance ministers resigned as a consequence of Macmillan’s plans to push money into the economy, which they believed could increase inflation. Macmillan’s view was that a small annual dose of inflation could not do much harm. Nor could tobacco smoking, which gave the Treasury a lot of its tax income, despite suggestions otherwise, which Macmillan stamped on good and hard, to the applause of his tobacco baron friends.

During 1958 and 1959 Macmillan flew about, devolving power to colonies, with a few economic strings attached, getting close to President Eisenhower and signing nuclear agreements committing the UK long term, for which he was called, satirically, “Supermac” by Vicky the cartoonist. He was saving the world and restoring our Great Power status, at the same time as running down the conventional forces. There were problems with Iceland, and over in Europe there was a Treaty of Rome, creating a Common Market, which he assured us, would not have implications or consequences for the UK.

The media did not know what to make of it all, and it left Gaitskell and his team scratching for attention. The BBC gave us a relentless diet of Lord Boothby as an ikon of culture and custodian of national identity. They did not mention his friends, the Kray brothers or any other inconvenient truths, nor the close encounters he had with Mrs. Macmillan. Not a hint of critical comment passed any of their lips. ITV, on the other hand, were anxious to convince us that the Esso sign meant happy leaded motoring, and that consumerism was good.

Macmillan’s government continued to spend their way out of trouble, rock and rolling their way, they said, to a rich future for us all, we would never have it so good. The miseries who looked at the figures and the way the world worked knew it could not and would not last. But that did not matter.

Because in October 1959, against all the odds of barely a year before Macmillan romped home in the election, and the real crisis of Britain’s future began.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

Can You See By The Dawn's Early Light?

Just how independent is the USA? Like most parts of the world a whole lot less than it used to be, much less than many of its citizens believe, and it may now be arriving at the point at which its constitution may be adjusting, informally, to the world as it really is. The major source of energy and the primary base of much of its industry is oil, and it is now around thirty years since the USA was self sufficient.

The USA moved into the car and truck age long before other nations. During World War II, when many developed countries had their capability reduced, the USA even expanded. The whole way of life now depends on fuels for vehicles. So does the food supply chain, not just in distribution and delivery, but in the actual growing of crops with all the pesticides and fertilisers.

The USA needs and will need more food as its population grows. In the past the USA may have been one of the bread baskets and major food exporters of the world, it will not be long before it will begin to import, and then depend on stocks from other countries, especially if for either climate or soil degradation reasons the yields begin to fall from its own fields. Also, the way things are, it could take only one scientific blunder by Monsanto to wreak havoc in the food industry. Is anyone taking bets?

Follow the money is an old American proverb, but since World War II the money, in international terms has followed America, in the shape of the dollar. It used to be the pound sterling, until the UK went broke during World War II, and amongst the reasons for seeking freedom around the old Empire, getting away from the pound was one of the more important considerations. The USA is now a debtor nation, and a big one, and the money markets through history do not like to depend on a base currency that relates to an economically unstable, unpredictable, debt laden state.

As the drift away from the dollar gatherers pace it is not easy to predict the results. Certainly it will reduce US influence, and require it to take more account of others. For many countries the uncertainty of the currency markets will present real issues of policy making about their economic future. For all the talk of this, that or the other, it is possible it might all become very unstable, with the USA being one bidder amongst many for whatever funds might be available.

For finance as a whole, for a time Wall Street and the City of London have called the shots, and between them turned all the world’s banks into one big system. Now it could be that neither can do this as much of their banking sector is nationalised, and under severe stress. If others can control the money, you cannot be independent. Especially, if for your energy, your food, your consumer goods, and a lot else you are reliant on imports.

Enjoy the holiday, cousins.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Paying The Pensions Piper

Long ago, there was a radio programme “Round The Horne” in which one character was Rattling Sid Rumpole, a Kenneth Williams skit on TV and Radio gardeners and rural types. His catch phrase was “Arrgghh, the answer lies in the soil.” Applying this philosophic principle to pensions comes up with “demographics” in place of soil.

I have said about many things, “But we saw this coming….” Alas, many except the politicians and media types. For the public sector pensions, finance thing, it is “Been there, done that". Many of the pension schemes were in place many decades ago, and whilst they did allow people to leave early, there were no added years except in the case of serious illness, when a modest number were allowed. In those days it had to be terminal or nearly that to get one. By and large employees were expected to serve their time.

A good many did not make it to retirement age; and of these the men lasted only an average of about 4/5 years Pension Payment Years after 65, and the women 14/15 after 60. In any case many men did not get in the full years of entitlement because of military service or some such and few women did the full number of years or anything like it in an age when marriage and children meant that you did not work.

By the beginning of the 1980’s because of money and staff reductions the question of early retirement came to the fore. With the strength of the unions, one means of relatively easy staff reduction was to let staff go early, often with added years and extra lump sum payments. Additionally, the medical conditions for departure for illness was relaxed, which added to the numbers drawing invalidity benefits. So when early retirement came onto the agendas as an easy and popular way of getting the numbers down, there was a Gadarene rush by unions and politicians to go for it, and to hell with the figures, the future would take care of all that.

By the 1980’s, however, the demographics certainly were changing in several ways, a key one being the increase in the expectation of life and it was clear even then to those who could do basic arithmetic that the various pensions schemes were going to come under pressure. Quite simply, the total of Pension Payment Years for all those on the books was already rising steadily and the trend was likely to last for some time. Add on almost automatic early retirement, and given that many of the early retirement schemes allowed people to go at 50 instead of 60 or 65, you can see what was going to happen. Then relax the rules and criteria for “sickies” and away you go.

So a man who goes in his early fifties might get 25 or more years of retirement in, and a woman 30 to 35 often at close to full entitlement. Whilst in the past the monies paid in by those in post could cover the totals needs, in a world where very many will not go into such a job until their early 20’s, or even later, then the sums paid in will not go near the sums paid out.

So it is not working any more and huge deficits have built up nationally and locally. Instead of facing this and putting in place some sort of controls the Government has simply given away more in the public services and all the schemes are technically insolvent. Government borrowing will have to take the hit one way or another, because the money is not there from taxation, nor from the existing employees.

It adds to all the other severe pressure on borrowing, and cannot be covered by forcing captive banks to buy treasury bonds, although the government have been leaning heavily on those public sector pension schemes with funds to do so, but some operate on the "running bath" principle. However, this only means that the returns to those funds are impaired by effectively lending to the government at below real market rates. This “Enron” tactic is at best only a quick temporary fix. It cannot be a long term solution.

After the Government hit the private pension schemes (except for the seriously rich) and tinkered with other parts of it, the old occupational pensions have almost gone, as the actuaries, accountants, and others have calculated the consequences. The present government are unlikely to do much because a remarkable number are entitled to public sector pensions as well as their political ones, often at levels that are augmented by their previous employers to way beyond the actual level of work they did. Also, a good many of their relations and friends are set to benefit as well.

So if you think that those parliamentary expenses were a profitable racket, think about their extra pension funds and entitlements from before they were elected or appointed to Parliament, and protected by convenient privacy arrangements.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Fare Dodging For Franchisees

So, let me work this one out. The taxpayer is down for £700 million as a result of the fiasco over the National Express franchise for the East Coast main line. It is said that it grossly overbid for the franchise contract on the basis of annual passenger growth of 9% up to 2015 or whenever. Was that compound I wonder or simple? Or didn’t they get round to that one? Even so, it is a huge increase, obtainable only if prices could be reduced in real terms, if not nominal. But the fares went up, didn’t they, because of the liabilities arising from the auction system and its costs inspired by the government? As well as the restructuring of fares, which amounted to another increase, and the racking up of any additional charges.

The Prime Minister is a man from Fife, National Express is part of a very Scottish company which flits about politically according to where benefit lies, and the Chief Executive of National Express has suddenly left to spend more time with his toy train set. He is a Mr. Bowker, who has a great deal of financial and political experience, but when asked about coupling trains thinks that you are talking about leasing them rather than moving them. Moreover he has hung around with the Blairs, sharing an interest in ancient pop music and imaginative financing.

The way it has worked has been to up the costs of travel, notably to the poorest, pour zillions into the pockets of all the usual financial entities, and put a hefty tax on real travel by rail. From time to time I need to travel by rail, so yet again, I will be paying for all this nonsense. And the reason for the “Flying Scotsman” picture is that once long ago, I worked on a former LNER station where A3 class locomotives were based, including that particular one for a short period.

The men I met then had been there before the nationalisation of 1947, but some before the rationalisation of 1923. They gave a lifetime to the railway, yet they earned less in their working lives than Bowker did in a month.