Wednesday 30 September 2009

Economics Today, Maybe Tomorrow, Perhaps Yesterday, And Vice Versa

What do we know? Probably not much if its economics and finance we are talking about. This may seem about as off the wall as you can be with the huge amounts of information and the effort poured into finding out what goes on and why and retailing it for general and other needs. But all this information is about what happened yesterday, or longer ago, or months and years ago. Or rather what we think happened. We have only the figures, the methods of analysis, and the theories from which draw our ways and means of dealing with all this.

These are in the past and we are trying to understand the future now and now is when we do not know what is going on. Was yesterday just how you expected it to be, and is today going as planned? It is reported that the Governor of the Bank of England is summoning economists by the thousand to tell him what to do. “And shall quantatitive easing live or quantatitive easing die? Here’s twenty thousand economists will know the reason why!” does not quite have the ring of the Cornish National Anthem, and Trelawney was a Bishop, albeit a believer in the sound money policy of King William III and his Dutch advisers, but it will have to do for the time being.

Keynes died in 1946, Ludwig von Mises in 1973, Karl Marx in 1883, Lenin in 1924, Adam Smith in 1790, and there are other figures of economic theory from either a more distant past or from those reaching into the present. In all cases their thinking has had to be revised and reinterpreted as time has moved on, and in some cases the foundations no longer support the structures built on them. Mathematical economics or the “science” of econometrics is based on very complicated sums, numbers and ciphers intended to carry meaning. But they are based on data, and the statistics, runs of figures, and calculations are often not as good as we think they are or would like them to be. Also governments have a nasty habit of manipulating numbers they do not like, and the ways of dealing with them.

Also, there can be assumptions about action and reaction, behaviours, dependent and independent variables, and “worth” which become dodgier the more closely you inspect them. It was mathematicians, allied to computers operated by men in unregulated and uncontrolled environments, allied to the psychology of the casino that helped to give us the best of the latest bust. Amongst other things were those governments persuaded by economists by the thousand churned out with high qualifications from business schools and universities who assured us that the figures could only go higher and higher on the basis of their up to date interpretations of all this theory and the reams of data inputted into the computer servers and outputted through dedicated terminals. One forgotten feature was that the theoreticians of old did not take account of bankers who would lend massive credits that could not be sustained to poor people in order to extract charges and liabilities that would allow enough short term profit to fiddle the figures to keep the racket going.

There were madmen about, wittering on about the uncertainty of complexity, that the data was often on too short a run and inherently unreliable, that official entities were faking their figures to justify their desires, the nature of cyclical events, and what happens to the bath water when you lose the plug. Beyond them were the clinical apocalyptics attempting to apply the collapse dynamics of physics, the chaos of the universe of astronomers, the Book of Revelations, the games theories born in the poker schools of 1950’s colleges, or uncertainty principles, climatic variations, or the final insanity, the application of pure reason.

In the early 1960’s Professor Phillips of the LSE created his “Phillips Machine”, a laboratory device of glassware that demonstrated the flows of money, investment, and consumption according to Keynes Theory. It still exists, and it was possible to make a “road map” to see how it worked allowing for the fact that he had originally worked on probability theory. But today when going over this map the roads have changed radically. Some have had diversions imposed, others have too many pot holes, the destinations have been changed, but most important computers have created freeways where once there were only footpaths and ordinary roads. Some roads have tolls now, some have gone and others are roads to nowhere. Also, the weight of economic “trucks” and “traffic” have greatly increased with the rapid expansion of credit. I tried to revise the “road map” but there were just too many squiggly lines going in altogether unexpected directions and finishing up off the page.

So what is next? I have not been invited by the Governor to dine, although I cannot claim to be wiser or better informed than anyone else, despite the desperate trawling of the net and such. But as I have been going on a bit here we go.

My sciatica tells me it could be rates of interest, but as Lyndon Baines Johnson once said, “economics is a pain in the butt”.

Sunday 27 September 2009

Labour Party Conference - What Changes?

The Party conference season has arrived, and the Info Entertainment programmes (aka News) are filled with heads talking rubbish between the human interest clips and sundry items dredged from the outer net. The Lib Dem’s staggered about in their customary indecisive way, as they have done ever since the days of Clement Davies. It is the Labour Conference this week, where the bad meets the worse. Then it will be the Tories, once the unspeakable chasing the uneatable, but now often behaving like the Senate of Rome in the run up to the Ides of March, 44 BC.

One conference I recall well is the Labour Conference of October 1967, held at The Spa in Scarborough, because I was around at the time and attended a couple of fringe meetings. Labour were a year into winning a clear majority in 1966 and Harold Wilson, PM, condescending with the satisfaction of power and authority, with at that time no EU to bother him but with an increasingly difficult economic situation, which he relentlessly blamed on the Tories. There had been a messy Cabinet reshuffle in August (cartoon by Illingworth above), and a bold front was needed. Wilson up to that time had been given an easy ride by the BBC whilst its minions had declared Open Season on Alec Douglas-Home in 1963-4 and more or less ignored Heath, his successor in revenge for the creation of ITV that had made the BBC the minor TV station. Wilson gave the BBC a second channel, much criticised as a unnecessary luxury for the middle classes, which opened as BBC2 in 1967.

Clement Attlee died on 8th October, which in its way marked the beginning of the end to Labour’s claim to be the party of moral virtue. On 19th November Harold Wilson announced the Devaluation of the pound by 14% roundly denouncing foreigner speculators, but really the USA and Commonwealth countries, dumping the pound sterling as fast as they could, and unofficial strikers. He made the error of telling us that it would not affect the pound in our pockets, which ended in a sentence the credibility he had striven so hard to create, puffing pipes in public when he favoured large Havana cigars.

There are two clips below, one of a Pathe item (below) setting the scene, featuring many of the well known political faces of the time. The other is something else. Around that time the “Futurist” at Scarborough ran variety shows, and one of the favourite turns was the Denny Willis “The Fox Has Left Its Lair” routine (below on Youtube).

Between them they take up to ten minutes. Which of the two is a statement of the human condition of the period and which is slapstick and which was closer to the realities of the time, make up your own mind.

The Pathe clip opens with the Wilson’s doing the important car bit, a quaint item now more often confined to female celebrities wanting free publicity by showing more than is conventional. It is a pity he is not wearing his trademark Gannex raincoat, manufactured by the later Lord Kagan, who was close to Wilson. His use of the coat did wonders for its sales, an early example of product placement. Lord Kagan was gaoled for tax evasion in 1980, shortly after the Conservatives regained power.

They are followed by Bessie Braddock, of Liverpool Exchange the dominatrix of Liverpool Corporation. It was the Braddocks and friends who tore up the dedicated tram network in Liverpool and allowed the closure of much of the network of rail lines that might have allowed fast transit systems of the future. They went completely over to buses and cars that contributed so much to the gridlocks of later. That all the Liverpool Corporation Transport Committee suddenly all obtained Rover Cars when the decision was taken was said to be purely a coincidence.

We then have Barbara Castle seen with Terry Pitt. She was the PM that never was, who might have beaten Margaret Thatcher to the role had she not had such virulent opposition amongst her colleagues. In comparison she might have made Margaret look like a nursery nurse. She was hated, not just because she was a woman, but because she had a sharp mind, and a sense of reality. Worse, she was often the only person in Cabinet to be left sober and coherent.

Then we have one of our National Treasure’s of today, the Queen Mum of Labour, Wedgie Benn himself, insufferably arrogant and bossy, furiously puffing a pipe to look plebeian. He was of course the son of a peer and married to an heiress, so living distinctly in his own comfort zone. He cost us all very dear with his notions on Technology. His commitment to the Concorde project, if only to defend his and other marginal constituencies in Bristol, was a classic elitist apparatchik scheme of the kind. The USA plane makers were building for the mass market, not for the small high spending political and business elite. It cost the UK its investment and future in space satellite technology, in the UK airframe industry, as well as the huge amounts desperately needed in health and education at the time.

Then there is George Brown, Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister, who beats John Prescott on points. He was a soak who soaked the rich and filled his boots, and who in his cups was liable to declare war on anybody. As Secretary for the Department of Economic Affairs earlier, a joh arranged with Wilson in the back of a taxi, he had laid the foundations for the property crash of the early 1970's. James Callaghan follows with the familiar smirk. It was Callaghan who sabotaged Barbara Castle’s attempt to sort out relations with the unions on a more stable basis. Sunny Jim was buying into land at a time when subsidies to agriculture were booming. He was the Chancellor at the time of Devaluation, but had failed to carry the Cabinet earlier when the trouble was beginning.

There was a National Economic Plan, Prices and Wages Controls, and severe credit restrictions, but within Westminster and the government, private enterprise continued unabated. In 1964 The Bahamas had been given self rule, and would become independent in 1973. In the meantime it was being developed as a tourist attraction because Cuba had closed for business in 1961. To enable this inward investment was needed and The Treasury and other offices nurtured it as an off shore tax haven designed to attract the wealthy anxious to protect both their capital and incomes. The senior lawyers of government and others formed a close relationship with the newly established state that has continued to this day, regular visits and exchanges being made.

Anthony Greenwood follows, of Housing and Local Government. Because of the state of government finances much had been left to local government, and in the reliable hands of the likes of T. Dan Smith and John Poulson who both eventually went to gaol. Bill Carron and George Elvin follow, and then Michael Stewart. At this time he was First Secretary of State, but in 1964-1965 was Education Secretary. This period was one that needed urgent decisions about the structure and building requirements in the service. Secondary education had only just been achieved, but only by creating very many bodged and poor situations. Increasing numbers were going to set many major challenges, so in 1965 Labour fudged it and passed the buck to the local authorities to try to do it without much cash or guidance. We are still dealing with the consequences.

Some of the above reappear in a parade down to the Spa, and then inside there is the Conservative Lord Mayor, wishing he was somewhere else, Jenny Lee, the widow of Aneurin Bevan, and another woman PM who never was, subordinating her career to that of her husband, with a grinning Wedgie at the end trying to clap the loudest.

The first of the two fringe meetings I went to featured the recently elected Shirley Williams, another fervent or fervid academic, with her vision of the education to come. I like the rest of the audience left more confused than when I started. With children in primary school, this mattered if changes were going to happen. It was clear that Labour did not really know what it was doing or why, all the talk was just that, and they seemed to be adrift of what was going on out there somewhere.

The other was the Lord Chancellor, Gerald Lord Gardiner, Harrow, Magdalen, Coldstream Guards, and QC, one of Labour’s many “Toffs”. He was talking about law reform and the future in a gentle and abstract way. Behind me was a group of Irishmen muttering between them. I thought they had strayed in mistaking the room for a bar. One then asked a question about Labour’s intentions to review the North of Ireland Acts of the early 1920’s. It caught the Lord Chancellor on the hop, and the indecisive reply left little doubt that there was no intention of the Labour Government to look into or change anything in Ulster during that Parliament, which could last until 1971. The man who asked the question l learned later was Gerry Fitt of the SDLP, and this was not what he wanted to hear.

As they say the rest is history, and I had no idea that it was happening in the row behind me.

Saturday 26 September 2009

The Special Relationship Has Changed

Rooting around the net I came across this in The Burning Platform dot com, flagged as a daily dose of reality by Jim Quinn. It is very much a Stateside blog, but this one says as much about us as about them. As for the G20, is anyone outside the media taking it seriously? Watch the rates of interest.

Can a Constitutional Convention Fix This?

To the People of the United States:

The republican system of government as defined in our Constitution has failed to secure for ourselves and our posterity the blessings of Liberty.

Our wealth and property are wasted, our lives regulated in minute detail, and a swarm of taxes are levied on every Thing in a myriad of unjust, unequal and opaque ways that prey upon the honest and industrious part of the community, eat up their substance, and license the unproductive to riot on the spoils of the country. Even the very substance of the exhalation of our breath has been Decreed a pollutant to be taxed and traded to enrich the politically well-connected.

The limits imposed by election to defined terms of office have been rendered illusory by an entrenched two-party system certain of its re-election in the face of record disapproval by the public of its governance. The structural faults in the Constitution regarding Federalism, retention of Powers by the States and the People, the Separation of Powers, and the Co-equal status of the three branches are laid open.

Congress routinely passes Law filled with Doublespeak and unread by its Members, Law to which it exempts itself, and Law designed to apply unequally, perniciously rewarding certain groups and penalizing others. Officers of Government trumpet ever more loudly that “We live by the Rule of Law” while declining to enforce laws enacted to secure our borders, prevent manipulation of markets, and provide honest accounting of public finances.

Increasingly, by executive, judicial and bureaucratic Fiat, Officers have contemptuously brushed aside any law deemed inconvenient to the exigencies of the moment: settled law regulating corporate governance, bankruptcy, the rights of creditors, laws regulating Elections, and State laws previously held to be outside the purview of the central government since adoption of this Constitution.

We are now a nation ruled by men, not by the plain words of Law or Constitution as understood by the common citizen. These men are unconnected to the people. We are ruled to an intolerable degree by a Twinned Tyranny of Judges and Bureaucrats. Government by Decree of unelected and unresponsive Men In Black and Men In Gray has largely replaced Government by open debate with duly Read and passed Law.

Local and State governments, which were to have retained most of the Powers of Government, dance to the tune of Federal Government Largesse and depend increasingly for their sustenance upon compliance with Federal mandates in order to receive Federal funds.

Established Law is flouted and improperly changed with the connivance and sometimes outright blessing of the Judiciary, who themselves often originate the changes. The Judiciary arrogated to itself the power of judicial review although the Constitutional Convention expressly rejected giving it such power, and usurps Executive and Legislative powers by making Policy and Law by Decree.

The administration of Law has become the province of Bureaucracies with de facto power to issue Rules and Findings that carry the force of Law. For more than a century the Executive issues Executive Orders and Findings that likewise usurp the Legislative Power, and Courts uphold the notion that these carry the force of Law.

The Legislature passes Laws from which it exempts itself and other Members of Government but require adherence by the States and the People. They pass Laws that clearly abridge the right of the people to speak freely especially upon matters political, to freely, publicly exercise religion, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, and Laws that extend into every facet of life in this nation notwithstanding the restrictions upon Federal government clearly expressed in the 10th Amendment. All of these Acts occur with the connivance of the Executive and the Judiciary.

The Constitution as written is being followed. The Court, as the Constitution intended, is the Supreme and Final arbiter of Law. When the trust of the People that their government will abide by the plain words and restrictions imposed on government becomes merely hope, and hinges upon the character of one or a few Judges, we are by definition in the grip of the Tyranny of the Few.

The meaning of words is held to no longer be plain, but to change with the whim of the Judiciary who have provided a major source of the assault on language. The use of Doublespeak by government increases at exponential rates, and is heavily promoted by a largely compliant and conniving Press, while the few dissenting portions of the Press are threatened with fines, dilution and diminution in the name of “diversity,” and other means of suppression.

All branches of government - the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary, extra-constitutional Bureaucracies and presidential Czars - flout the plain words and meaning of the Constitution. Congress unconstitutionally delegates authorities to unelected and unanswerable bureaucracies. General ignorance prevails in the population of the history and philosophical underpinnings of its own heritage and how much of its liberties are already abridged or altogether lost.

Can the structure be improved so that repair is effective and lasting? The question lies before us, but perhaps not for long. Strict new Amendments at least, possibly a new Constitution, are required or this American Experiment in Liberty, self-government and Limited general government will peacefully, utterly perish from this land.

In the next Letter, A Desirable Bill of Rights, wording for requisite changes will be submitted. Locke.

Thursday 24 September 2009

Property Tax - The Price Of Folly

No apologies for dealing with this topic again. This is not about the philosophy, morality, or justice of differing tax systems. It is about the brutal realities of the now and immediate future. It is an issue that is not going to go away because of the fiscal situation the government has created for itself, and a network of problems that cannot be easily solved because essentially the horse has bolted taking the jockey with it. At present there is a major debate about how much is to be cut from government expenditures, by what means, and in which services in the public sector. A great many promises have been made by all parties that simply cannot be met without major adjustments.

What is being consistently ignored, because they do not fully understand it, are the issues about revenue, how much can be raised, by what means, and who from. A key feature is that few people realise by how much the tax base has atrophied in recent years in relation to commitments. There is almost too much to explain. To start with the young, if you keep them all at school longer, and then require up to a half to attend university to the age of 21 or more, and demand time out for training almost all the rest, then many fewer are paying much in the way of tax, and moreover greatly add to costs. If as a result of this many are heavily in debt in their early 20’s, then this will impact on their spending, and all the indirect and other taxes involved, and on their decisions on lifestyle.

At the other end of the age scale, early retirement has become a feature of modern life, notably in the public sector, and either in unfunded pension schemes, or in funded ones that are now seriously in deficit. Many of these people do not feature in the unemployment statistics, but even those with better pensions, the minority, will not be paying as much in tax, or spending as much on taxable goods as those in work. As for their savings, many seek out tax free options, and a good many have been inveigled into financial products that are claimed to reduce liability because they have offshore features. Many of those who invested savings recently in the Isle of Man will be paying even less, as their savings seem to have been lost.

Those that did retain savings for income in the UK have now seen major cuts in their investment income, and their tax liability and spending power. Beyond all this there has to be a possibility that one way or another, pensions will have to be reduced or at least capped for the foreseeable future and it is likely that more stealth taxes on pensions could be needed to reduce the burdens. Many of the very old have now been virtually stripped of most of their savings, either by “care” or property rackets run by close contacts and friends of our politicians.

Amongst the working population the scenario is much worse. At one time access to and use of tax havens and related financial schemes and products was restricted to a small and select minority. Over the last decade this has been developed into a major service sector dedicated to tax avoidance and often connected tax evasion. It has now reached out, if not to the toiling masses, then at least to anyone with the wit or ability to manage their funds, income, and assets by their own decision.

A jobbing builder down the street who does lofts and kitchens etc. but nothing big registers his vehicles in a tax haven and conducts his business through one. He does not employ anyone but makes use of a select group of self-employed craftsmen, who I suspect do not pay much tax at all. When I buy goods by phone or on the net, it seems that arrangements for billing and delivery are such to either eliminate or hugely reduce tax payments. Earwigging travellers on their mobile phones on the train tells me that many “suits” in middling jobs have complicated arrangements on and offshore for this and that. Tax avoidance is no longer the preserve of the bosses, it has become a feature and a “right” of the middle classes, broadly defined.

Our local High Street etc. is full of offices of banks, building societies, and travel agents etc. all of which can move handle and move money easily and readily. Yet in the back streets are a handful of “internet facilities” with a little payment office for transmitting funds here and there. There are rarely any people using the computers but often a little queue of men from other shores holding wads of cash. In the last decade many of these men have moved into rented accommodation, and I believe are entitled to housing benefit. The owners of very many of these properties have accounts for transmitting funds abroad, beyond the reach of British taxes. The idea that inward migrants will pay lots of clear tax with few commitments is substantially a fiction. Many are low paid, many do not figure in the financial statements, and morever those in cultures that demand strong family ties often bring over their aged and infirm, at least those in our vicinity do.

Then there are the NEET’s, Not In Education Employment Or Training class of youngsters who may now number up to million, who knows? They have their own tax free zone and where does their money comes from and go to? Last but not least are the several areas of criminal activity, some with apparently legitimate fronts, but which have major funds and assets, often abroad, untouched by any tax liability. Nobody knows how much may be involved here, but the figures are likely to be very large indeed.

You may have noticed, I have not mentioned the very rich, the governing classes, or the magnates of finance and commerce. I suspect that they will be taking every possible advantage to minimise their personal taxes. They are certainly a major factor, but a greater one in creating the path that so many now are following. Nor will I go into all the fiddles, VAT, benefits, etc. off balance sheet arrangements, all yielding incomes and assets to many all of which are untouched by tax.

So, if the government cannot now get at the incomes of so many, if consumer tax raising in the UK is steadily being eroded by outside sourcing, if in creating a greater number of “clients” the government is hugely reducing its tax base, who is left to pay? Those that are will not be able to stand the full price of the financial folly of the last decade from either their incomes or spending, and these in any case are the substantial part of the people who actually vote. In a worst case scenario this is the stuff of revolution, as in 1381, whether it is a property or a poll tax and many in other years and places since. When regimes fail to conserve and balance income and expenditure then they revert to the historical default of property taxes (in regimes with servile or bound labour poll taxes are a form of property tax) that cascade down the classes one way or another and can reach a point where it all breaks down, often with violence.

What is left, that cannot be moved abroad, that you know where it is, and can have a reasonable estimate of its worth and potential for tax? It is physical property, and that is why Property Taxes on an altogether different scale will be part of the struggle and anguish in the coming decades as the government seeks out funds. Vincent Cable’s tentative suggestion of a 0.5 figure on homes over £1 million in value is only the first toe in the ocean. My guess is we could eventually be looking at much higher levels on all property depending on conditions, vital to cover the ongoing deterioration in the fiscal position.

It is within my personal experience that until the 1960’s the then Schedule “A” tax applied to domestic owner occupied properties. On the basis of the kind of property I owned, a modest semi-detached without garage, that tax together with the council rates, also a property tax, the total annual bill ran to about 10% of my gross annual income and they amounted to 4% of the value of the property. So Vince Cable’s modest proposal to tax property asset millionaires is chicken feed.

The Schedule “A” tax on owner occupied domestic property was abolished as a means of encouraging home ownership and for the outgoing unpopular high spending Conservative Government to buy badly needed votes. In those days the whole shape and impact of taxation was very different, so it is very difficult to compare then from now. All I do know was that as a young family with children and an income slightly above the average, we could not afford a car, the housekeeping was very tight, we had little to spend, we hired the TV, and holidays were out of the question. So much for the “Swinging Sixties”.

The past is coming back to haunt us, and the bill will be in the post.

Tuesday 22 September 2009

Property Shock Horror - Cable Weighs Anchor

At last it has happened. A senior politician, respected, regarded as an honest and decent man, well known on TV for his stance on moral issues in politics, has “come out” and admitted to a truth whose name has barely been whispered or hinted at in polite society. It is something that has shocked his class, and all his colleagues to the core, it has horrified everyone, not just those of his peers and background, but in almost every home in the country.

Vince Cable has admitted to a belief in some sort of real property tax. Inevitably, the whole of the London Mediocracy, notorious for the viciousness and violence of its bigotries and prejudices has turned on him almost to a man, woman, or persons of transgender. Will he ever be invited to a dinner party again? Or any other form of party? Will he be jostled and jeered at when he passes by the drunks spilling out of the bars in Parliament as they stagger off to the Divisions? Will the boys of the Bullingdon Club try to throw him into the fountains of Trafalgar Square? Will people in dark suits bawl insults at him in the street? Will gangs of private equity property investors and estate agents gather outside his home to lower its value? Will all those bloggers with second or third homes run endless Youtube Hitler in the bunker spoofs as well as obscene diatribes?

Well, if he has the courage, who am I to stand aside? Yes, people, I too believe that some form of property tax has become inevitable in present conditions, and that the nettle should be grasped. For those who have allergy problems with nettles, read dock leaves. At one time we had “Rates”, a curious way of local authorities raising their funds from the distant past, that had developed so many weaknesses and problems that it had to go. Then, for a brief moment in time around 1990, there was the “Poll Tax”, more properly called “Community Charge”, the inception and structure of which was botched, a capitation tax to avoid the need for taxes on property. The Conservative Government that had bet the house (OK a dreadful pun) on the notion of a Property Owning Democracy, made it impossible for themselves to risk any significant added levies, and this in turn led them into unleashing The City predators on to property to generate revenue by other means. Well, we all know where that led to, and in the USA where the same notions led to the same problems.

Indeed, there are levies at the moment, the Council Tax which is a sort of property tax at local level, but does not provide near enough revenue for local spending. This has serious weaknesses and is heavily loaded in favour of the better off and those at the top end of the property market. There are some transaction charges, but this is dependent on the number and nature of transactions. Pity all those expensive officials in the Treasury did not manage to work out that one, perhaps they were all too busy with their own and helping politicians with their property portfolios.

As for the “difficulty” and “unfairness” (the rich pay more, indeed pay something) this should not be too difficult, around the world are many and various forms of property taxes. If I were to lay off the Fantasy Football and USGS Earthquake listings for a couple of hours, and do some heavy Googling with luck I could knock out a structure by the end of the week, and then mailing round a few reliable people would tidy up most of the details. I am tempted to try. The real problem would be to try to explain it in simple terms to the Treasury, the Bank of England and the London Mediocracy, who will listen only to the foam flecked mouthings of the dogmatic extremists and arm waving threats from all the vested interests involved.

Never mind that most of them might be obliged to pay at least one tax that bore some connection to the extent and nature of their wealth and income.

Monday 21 September 2009

Arnhem & Market Garden - A Risk Worth Taking

This weekend marks the 65th anniversary of “Operation Market Garden”, the attempt to force Allied troops across the Rhine in September 1944 by means of a combined thrust through Eastern Holland and Airborne landings at the Arnhem Bridge. The conventional view today, peddled by all the armchair warriors, academics from the shelters of their university bunkers, historical and political theorists inspecting the latest entrails, and last but not least all the psychologists who have seen violence only in punchups in academic seminars over their egos, is that it was a fiasco, or a disaster, borne out of squabbles between commanders, their personal frailties, or stupidity.

The pictures displayed are of Montgomery talking to paratroops in training. Notice how they are sat down informally, whereas when our present politicians talk to troops they are always lined up in a parade position. The other is of John (Shan) Hackett, who commanded the 4th Parachute Brigade in 1944 at Arnhem with Field Marshal Montgomery and Major General Urquhart, GOC 1st Airborne Division. Hackett commanded the 7th Armoured Division some years later and one fine night he and I, and around 17,000 others rode down from the Elbe to the Rhine, just to see how it would go if we had to do it for real. He remarked that the journey took a lot less time than the trip in the other direction in 1945. There were a number around us, officers and men, who had been there and done that in 1944 and 1945. It was their view that Operation “Market Garden” was a risk that had to be taken.

They remembered the camps. There were very many of them in Northern Germany in 1944 and 1945. There were the prisoners of war on short rations, many of whom had been marched from the East and just survived, although many hadn’t. There were holding camps for refugees from the East, many of them displaced Germans, or those who also feared the Russians. There was little food or facilities for them. Then there were the other camps, the Concentration Camps. It was the 11th Armoured Division that found Bergen-Belsen in April 1945. Its Director of Medical Services calculated that over 30,000 had died there alone in the last few weeks before its liberation.

They remembered the situations they found in the German cities in Spring 1945, the ruins, the collapse of administration and services, the rates of mortality, the hunger and disease, typhus and cholera. It had been the same in Holland, and to a lesser extent in Belgium. The Danes and Norwegians were at risk. This was why in the autumn of 1944 that Montgomery, with the backing of Alan Brooke and others, decided to take the gamble that went against all the strategy and thinking they had adopted until that time.

They remembered Germany in 1918 and 1919, the political chaos, the hunger, the dangers to Europe of the collapse of so much government, law, and social structure. By 1944, the war had already gone on longer than the First War, and the extent of both physical and social damage was hugely greater with the larger scale of air and land operations. If we could force an armoured corps across the Rhine the early Autumn, and lead the 2nd Army behind the German defensive line, there was a chance that by the time winter set in of being at or across the Elbe and even reaching Berlin.

They remembered the home Atlantic Isles in the last year of the First War and after, and could see the developing situation there in 1944 and 1945. The removal from Britain of so many troops with all their logistics and support facilities had taken away a major support of the working and home population, never mind an informal source of extra food supplies. Civil authority was weakening. For all the propaganda and anxiety, the ordinary people were tiring, everything was badly run down, local services were in poor condition. It was all literally falling apart, and people were increasingly cold and hungry, the daily business of scratching around for basics had worn too many down. Remember this was the time when anti-biotics were new, in scarce supply and barely enough for military casuaties. It would be years before they were in common civilian use, so all the old scourges of disease were taking their full tolls of populations. In the south east corner morale had been damaged by the V Rocket raids and the fear they induced. Yet there was still a long, damaging, very nasty war in the East still to be fought and won, with apparently little hope of any Japanese surrender or willingness to talk.

That 30 Corps made it to close to the Rhine was an achievement in itself, the airborne assault at Arnhem was a close run thing, but failed in its main objective and the advance stalled. The later winter was a hard one. When assessing whether or not Operation “Market Garden” was a failure, and the casualties of that action are counted, set against it the figures of all those who died in Europe between, say, November 1944 and May 1945, and those who died after who might have survived had the war in the west been won earlier. Montgomery could see this and so could some others, sadly few of the Americans. It was a very high risk operation, heavier casualties were likely; despite the unfavourable intelligence it was the last chance before the winter, so the Operation went on.

So remember all those who died, and not only at Arnhem but in the camps and in the cities of so many parts of Europe in the Winter of 1944 and the Spring of 1945.

Thursday 17 September 2009

Independence Day For England

What does “Independence” mean for the United Kingdom? One theory is that in 1941-1942 when we ran out of money was the date it was lost. Also we had been brought to the brink of being unable to feed our population by war. This was the consequence of population increase, Imperial policies, and Free Trade for industry and The City allowing our own agricultural industry to endure a depression that began in the 1870’s. That period is an academic option for when independence began to be compromised. The process was a long and tortuous one, too long for a simple blog. It involves India, Egypt, Africa, the Far East, the Middle East and much else. It involves Europe and the entanglements that led us into two World Wars.

It meant that as the City of London arrogated itself to be the financial ruler of the world, when it began to falter and weaken, it then became its prisoner. When Westminster ruled a fifth of the surface area of the world and claimed to rule the seas, the impossible task of maintaining firstly the fact, and then after 1918, the fiction, led the political elite into a series of submissions and obligations, culminating in the accession to the European Community and Brussels in 1973. The rest is not quite history. Westminster now has less control over many of the affairs of the UK than did the former County and County Borough Councils of long ago.

How much real choice will the ordinary English people of today, who are not the same as those of the 18th Century, or even the early 20th Century, have in the matter? Will we soon have an English Parliament or a Parliament in which the procedures allow a specifically English sphere of influence and decision? If the UK ends and it is free of Scotland, something I suspect desired by the great majority of ordinary English people, then the Six Counties of Ulster may well attach itself to its Scottish homeland. In England we forget that Antrim can be seen from Scotland. Wales may want to go its own way as well. What does the idea of “independence” entail across the key sectors of the economy and the polity of England?

Firstly, will England retain the pound sterling and manage its own monetary system according to its defined needs? If it adopts the Euro then it is not independent, nor is it if it takes on another currency. Also, it is not if the pound shadows or is obliged to be a dependent variable of another currency.

By definition, if it remains within the European Union, then whatever it might call itself, it is not “independent”, especially under the terms of the Lisbon Treaty. It might be said to have a system of modified independence, but this depends on the volume and nature of the legislation and regulation emanating from Brussels. If there is a lot, and its impact is substantial, then England is only a province. Forget any claptrap about being at the heart of Europe, shorthand for claiming we would call the shots. We will not and cannot.

Would England be able to provide for the bulk of the food needed by its population, and indeed to survive any world wide food crisis? The more dependent it is on food imports, the more limited its effective independence is likely to be and reliant on those territories from where the food is supplied. What about fuel and power? Same again, these are basic utilities, the more under foreign supply or ownership the less any independence can be. Might we all be saying “Tovarich” as we beg for warmth?

Could England revive and reinstate its own consumer goods industries, or will it be reliant on certain limited sources, e.g. China? Then there are all those international agencies and obligations that the modern world has created. The more we take on, the less room for manoeuvre we have. Clearly the greater the complexities, the more any government of England will be shackled.

In turn, this leads to how an English government can deal with the global mega-corporations that control so many markets in every sort of product or service. We have seen the UK government bow the knee to almost any and every mega-corporation that comes it way, promising jobs and investment, that is so long as this favour or subsidy or given, or that. They take the money, and run when they like.

The great problem for England will be what to do about London. There is the City of London, so long as its activities are of central importance and so long as it remains a largely unregulated participator in the global monetary arena, the less England can do to stay away from the problems. Not least is how far other parts of the Atlantic Isles, including the ancient counties of England, can shake off the grasping hand of The City. London itself is becoming a foreign city as many incomers become the majority of its population. These are not a single body, but are disparate. There are a lot of difficult questions to address. Perhaps England might be able to abandon the notion of “The Commonwealth”, that empty vessel of decayed and deranged ambition to play The Great Power.

There are the questions of lines of communication. Just how far can England exert any control over the air and sea around it, or on the global communications systems now in place? I seriously doubt that our navy at present can protect our shores from any determined enemy, criminal gangs, or slavemasters. The gangs are here already, active and politically influential arising from their easy access to UK operated tax havens. In a world where communications are all, if you cannot control your own, you cannot control much else.

There is much detritus of the past, internal and external. The Crown dependencies of one kind and another scattered across the globe, many being tax havens, may not be wanted by an independent England wishing to be free of its past obligations, nor might they want to remain attached to it. If we are being democratic, then they should be able to opt for either full independence or for which part of the former UK they regard as appropriate to their vision of their future. Given that one of the main planks of the recent movement for Scottish independence is Edinburgh as a major financial secrecy jurisdiction, with all that is entailed, it would be logical for the Scots to take them over.

One example of the internal rearrangements is those of surface links. At present the rail links to Wales are largely carried on costs that fall on England. Apart from the line to Cardiff and Swansea, the others could close. Also, inasmuch as the ferry links to Ireland largely benefit the Irish, any English subsidy could cease. As for Scotland, the projected £34 billion high speed line, in English terms is a complete nonsense. Moreover, it is questionable whether England should continue subsidies for more than one passenger line across the Border, given that most of the traffic is Scots based, and much of it for governmental purposes that will no longer apply. The West Coast line might remain, but the East Coast could end at Newcastle, with the line north to Morpeth and Alnmouth degraded to suburban commuter services, and if retained beyond be essentially for any residual freight requirements if they covered the costs. Otherwise closure could occur. The predominance of these lines in the strategy of rail provision over the 20th Century has been a major cause of the lack of attention given to internal English requirements, and monies released would be of benefit to improvements to links across England. As for the roads, toll facilities will be needed for all the crossings of the Border, which may entail tolls on the major English roads north of say York and Lancaster.

In defence policy, if England were to look to its own interests alone, then a great deal could go. There would certainly be a need for a navy, groupings of small, fast, vessels, located from Whitehaven and The Tyne to The Channel and the Western Approaches, packing a punch, and of a very different character, and the same applies to the air force. The Army would lose some men, who would need replacing and would need to be reconfigured. If the past is any guide, if there are major differences in law, notably on drugs and alcohol, there would need to be effective military policing of the Border with high standards of control given the levels and nature of criminal activity already present in Scotland.

The Atlantic Isles once had a henge culture several thousand years ago. This was tribal in political organisation, but since became the playground of warring incomers and occasional invaders. Too many of these were violent exploitative slave societies, notably the Celts who supplied the Romans, and later others. Such parts might go their own ways according to the relatively recent boundary divisions. The same considerations, inevitably, apply to them as well as to England. Here the so-called “independence” amounts to unshackling themselves from the remaining and residual corrupt and incompetent London power centre that is failing to deliver government or unity to anywhere in the Atlantic Isles. If members of the EU they will be no more “independent” than the Duchy of Luxembourg, and a lot less than Vermont.

What images will England take on? It will have to chose either between more ancient symbols of Englishness from a deeper past before 1015 or try for something modern. The trouble with “modern” is that is could be something imposed by the alien crackpots of the London advertising and arts establishment. Can we hope it escapes the tiresome and destructive bigotry, macho violent imagery, idiocies, lies, posturing and propaganda of other nationalisms? This is a sensitive question, and one for another blog. I am not the best person to ask, by blood mostly Scots with elements of Irish and Welsh mingling uncertainly with the various strains of English and those from other shores. Like others, many finished up here because they ran out of the money or the will to go further. But we would all have to get on with it.

What would it be like, an England defined in its own terms for the first time since the year 1015?

Wednesday 16 September 2009

Whistling Down The Wind

There are times when the double act of Gordon and Alastair remind me of the scene in “The King And I” when the lovely Deborah Kerr, and her son Louis are struck with fear on their arrival in an unknown land. They sing “Whistle A Happy Tune”, which just about sums up economic policy at the moment. The clip of the film is out of sync’ which is appropriate.

Whenever I feel afraid
I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune
So no one will suspect
I'm afraid.
While shivering in my shoes
I strike a careless pose
And whistle a happy tune
And no one ever knows
I'm afraid.
The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people
I fear I fool myself as well!
I whistle a happy tune
And ev'ry single time
The happiness in the tune
Convinces me that I'm not afraid.
Make believe you're brave
And the trick will take you far.
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are
While shivering in my shoes
I strike a careless pose
And whistle a happy tune
And no one ever knows,
I'm afraid.
The result of this deception
Is very strange to tell
For when I fool the people
I fear I fool myself as well!
I whistle a happy tune
And ev'ry single time
The happiness in the tune
Convinces me that I'm not afraid.
Make believe you're brave
And the trick will take you far.
You may be as brave
As you make believe you are....

Monday 14 September 2009

Keep Right On To The End Of The Road

My back hurts a lot. It has been Heritage Open Days weekend and I was dragged out to look at high cost facilities preserved to remind us of our past. There are many wonderful places, and little known treasures to be found, but there are temptations to the urge to debate. As someone who thinks that Thomas Becket had it coming, it can make me an unwelcome guest at a place where the devout pray to him. When they remind me that he scattered silver coins to the poor pilgrims I remind them that it was the equivalent of chucking £50 notes at football supporters and the money had been obtained by monastic financial and property frauds, malpractices and tax swindles imposed by him as Chancellor. Reginald Fitz Urse, whose manor and lands at Wrotham lay halfway between palaces of the Archbishop in Otford and Maidstone, and had suffered, was responding as any hard pressed tax payer would at the time. King Henry II simply wanted to have a look at the accounts. But it is difficult telling worshippers not to be judgemental.

Which brings me to the money and the roads. The places we visited could be reached by “B” roads at best, and more often by distances over Unclassified (back) roads. It was rough riding, and the roads reminded me of the days when I first cycled when rural roads might have little more than a spray of tar and gravel over limited or negligible foundations. Our car has decent suspension, and comfortable seats, but it was doing a lot of bouncing. This happened on stretches of “A”, trunk roads as well and we have noticed that many of these are in poor condition. Moreover, our journeys were in areas near to towns, motorways or dual carriageway major routes, and busy railway lines. There is a high density of population, and none of it can be regarded as “remote”.

As traffic levels have increased; with increased intensity of vehicle use, the roads need a great deal more expensive maintenance. Also, the vehicles have changed. Not only are cars often heavier, and driven harder, but the commercial vehicles now common are in a different order to those when these roads were first engineered to deal with the traffic of the middle decades of the 20th Century. They are bigger, heavier, and carry more, whether trucks or vans, and modern logistics means that they travel widely and are not confined to motorways or major trunk routes.

A neighbour and good friend was a road engineer. The houses on the development had a few paving slabs as drives, thrown down just before the builders went into liquidation, so many chose to lay new drives. Workmen would spend a couple of days putting down a driveway. My neighbour did his own, and was taking a long time, and doing a very different job. I asked why. He had worked on some major road projects and explained the basic principles of road foundations. There were plenty of good examples around.

When the M62 was built, largely at the urging of Barbara Castle who had been talking to road engineers but to the derision of the Ministry of Transport planners and statisticians, much of the carriageway was laid to motorway standard near major towns. It was expected to function as a series of linked by-passes, but on other stretches, notably the East Riding section beyond the A1, for reasons of economy, the Ministry decided on having limited foundations against advice. The engineers were proved right, the M62 soon achieved high levels of heavy freight traffic, and in the East Riding the foundations quickly began to collapse and the whole section had to be rebuilt to much higher standards, at a huge added cost.

One feature explained to me that was when foundations became deformed and the surface uneven, then vehicles would “thump” up and down. With ordinary cars this was not much of an issue, but with anything heavy and with high axle weights, this would worsen the damage, and at an increasing rate. I could believe it, as once I had the job of diverting an Armoured Brigade of four regiments moving on its tracks down a side road, and inside a couple of hours the road and its foundations were torn apart and up to two foot taken off the level. Unless dealt with early a roadway under continuing pressure could collapse quickly, and sometimes without notice. Any services underneath would be damaged and liable to failure.

We are talking serious money. A back of the envelope calculation for the few miles I spent driving around a varied collection of back roads, “B” roads, and the few miles of “A” roads, would mean around £100 million to reconstruct them to modern needs, taking account of the range, weight, and intensity of vehicle traffic they now have. For the county as a whole, call it at least a billion. It could be needed soon, because some of these roads are deteriorating fast. In many cases the verges have gone and the edges are already collapsed. The potholes are getting bigger and deeper. If we ever do get a hard winter again the frost damage will be extensive. Surfaces are eroding fast, and fracture lines are common. The rutting that is now common shows a great many foundations are impaired. As other routes become clogged or under repair, many of these roads are experiencing not just local traffic but a good deal of incidental other traffic.

One thing is clear, it is that routine road maintenance, as well as much else that is “routine” in central and local government, has not seen its expenditure keep pace either with basic needs, advancing costs, or increased demand. Bitter experience of budgeting tells me that one of the first, often the first, casualty of retrenchment, cuts, or discarded plans, is maintenance and upkeep. If you do not do the basic work, and are late in dealing with worsening issues, then you can finish up with something that is no longer serviceable. Our road system beyond the motorways and major trunk routes is already in an advancing stage of decline. This is being written by someone who visits preserved railways and has all the ancient prejudices in favour of rail.

If you want to understand the thinking, then go to a heritage site which has ancient ruins. When I try to explain to those who love these places and their myths that it was the maintenance costs that did for most of them they do not believe me. Consider the state of the Exchequer over much of the past, the problems with taxation, and just how much it cost to maintain such places for so few people. It applied to the castles and to a great many other major constructions of the middle ages. Moreover the urge to build new prestige buildings added to all the burdens and something had to go.

It is surprising how quickly an infrastructure can collapse. For catastrophe hunters, one sport is trying to guess which advanced economy could be the next to go. At the moment the UK is at shortening odds, so keep your eye on the road.

Friday 11 September 2009

Temperance Is A Virtue

Frank Skinner, comedian, performer and a commentator on our times, has been temperance since 1986, when he realised that persistent heavy drinking was doing real damage. He has put his head above the parapet in support of the British Medical Association declaration that alcohol consumption is at levels that present serious health issues amongst increasing numbers of the population, of all ages. When I looked for a suitable image from the web it was serendipity that one showed a Band of Hope demonstration in Leek, Staffordshire, from 1907, with the Skinner name prominent above a shop.

Look closely, and you see that for a small town, it was a large demonstration. Into the early decades of the 20th Century, from small beginnings in the early 19th, the Movement had large followings across the Atlantic Isles, and complex and extensive organisation, albeit divided, too stratified, and given to spending too much time on obscure theological debates.

My personal acquaintance with Temperance organisations was a brief one. In the early 1950’s a jolly red headed girl with flashing blue eyes invited me and my friends to a social event in a local church hall. When we arrived there, we found that it was a GAY event; that is the Guild of Abstaining Youth, motto, you did not need to drink to be gay. In those days the word conveyed its original meaning in the provinces. Whilst it was for the most part an ordinary social occasion, unluckily, there was a price, an homily from a church elder on the virtues of temperance, intended to recruit us.

Even more unluckily, she chose to cite Gilbert Keith Chesterton as someone who would have done better sober. As I had read many of his works and she hadn’t, there was a debate she did not welcome. Worse still, it was apparent that before arriving we had been in the Marquis of Granby pub first a few doors away. We had been rugger training and we needed to restore our liquid balance with Shipstones Best Mild. We assumed we had lost a lot of liquid. The evening ended badly.

By this time the old Temperance Movement was in retreat for a variety of reasons, too much to go into here. One factor was that drinking was then much more under control than it had been in the past, especially in some towns where the local council, often with a strong Methodist element, limited the number of licences as much as possible. Not only were the outlets for the sale of drink reduced, with strict opening hours imposed, but the stuff itself was far from cheap. Spirits were very expensive, wines little known, and costly, as were the range of other stronger drinks. The beer was characteristically weaker, a legacy of two world wars. If your budget was limited to that, your stomach usually gave in long before the brain.

Added factors were that there was no credit of any kind, and working hours were a great deal longer. Saturday night was the only time available for many. As there was little interest in total prohibition, except for a small number of places which had exceptionally rigorous religious communities, the Movement lost impetus. Another factor was inevitably the media, films, TV and radio invariably portrayed drink as a necessary social skill, and temperance people as a miserable bunch. The distillers and brewers had quickly recognised the values of product placement.

In its time, the Movement had been a major agent of social reform, because it took in not only the interests of families, but critically of the children their health and education. It was very much an educational movement, and with an agenda of social interaction in an improving and positive community setting. It crossed class barriers, although with few of the upper classes much involved, they were not known as “The Beerage” for nothing.

It was that most shocking of things, a substantially lower middle and skilled working class supported form of political movement, which included those who did not get the vote until after 1865 in some cases and 1885 in most, with the women not voting until after 1918. We know a good deal about the leadership of the Movement from the works of Peter Turner Winskill (1834-1912). Although many academic historians turn up their noses at him, no discernable Marxist ideas, if his work is checked in detail it holds up. He was an Iron Moulder by trade, before taking on senior duties in the Movement. At its peak, the Movement numbered millions, gave a commitment and non-alcoholic full social life, and further education in skills and trades to many.

One of the main planks of the Temperance Movement was the claim that the drinks trade was not a free market in the way it worked. It was common in some trades for wages to be paid only in a public house. It was often a part of the job to drink with others. In many cases, beer was a great deal safer than the water or anything else. The pub trade was increasingly in the hands of the brewers, and they relentlessly expanded the number of outlets. Regulation was a matter of a battle for control over the freedom of people to decide for themselves.

Today, all we have is the medical and health lobby, AA and support groups with a few cheerleaders, and rare individuals like Frank Skinner to ask the awkward questions about what we are doing to ourselves, especially the young. We have some government publicity, and the seriousness of government can be measured by the size of the entertainment expenses of the Departments of State and all the Quangos. It takes some doing to shift booze on that scale. The affairs of state may be in chaos, but we lead the world in the size of our official drinks bills. It adds to the spending for economic growth, call it practical quantatitive easing.

One thing is certain, it is all a lot easier to do, and to fund these days for everyone from the age of eight and upwards (yes I have since kids swigging white cider) to an extent impossible fifty years ago. Moreover, there is a seamless transition. Long ago there were few cheap fizzy drinks for the masses, in recent decades there is now an abundance of all sorts of stuff, much of it choc a bloc with stimulants in the form of caffeine and high power sweeteners, sugars, and synthetic flavourings.

From there it is a very short step to alcopops, much the same sort of chemical mix but with alcohol; sometimes not so strong, but far stronger than a 1950’s pint of bitter. Once there, then the cocktails of fashion, and strong other drinks follow. Some of this is not so good, cheap eastern vodkas giving instant brain damage for the unwary. With so many outlets selling a wide variety, so much time available, so much credit, and a lifestyle culture for many of the young now built around binge drinking, the consequences are inevitable. For those who are more fastidious, the supermarkets now offer a range of wines at a comparative price that once would have been a good class stock in the few wine merchants in the provinces.

It is probable that in attempting to control the drink problems, the game is now lost, and the situation irrecoverable. When politicians, indeed party leaders, head marches of protest to the closure of a booze bottling plant as a sure fire way of winning voter sympathy and hopefully their votes, it says a lot about attitudes to temperance. Especially, when evidence points to alcoholic abuse being a major problem in the constituencies they hope to win. The Pubcorps have made great efforts, closing down tens of thousands of pubs in the name of the greater glory of property development, and leaving many small communities without any alcohol outlets, but the supermarkets have more than made up for it by all their cheap offers across the board, or rather counter.

The trouble is that the politicians do not appreciate the implications of letting it all hang out, and not simply in health terms. It involves policing, more on the streets, with more powers to deal with the consequences. It involves difficult tax issues. It involves careful monitoring of what is on sale, to get rid of the increasing amount of toxic stuff that is out there. It involves more closely monitoring all the outlets. In our modern world there is no hope of recreating any of the movements of the past. To attempt to go back to the limitations of the past is electoral suicide for any party that attempted it. Education is hopeless, with teachers claiming it is a human right to get plastered at weekends, possibly in the same pubs and clubs as the kids.

So any control or regulation is down to ourselves, and how much notice we take of the doctors, and the occasional homily from individuals, like Frank Skinner. Anyone for a cup of tea?

Wednesday 9 September 2009

Oh For A Muse Of Fire

The man of learning and science had found a quiet place in the orchard of Woolsthorpe Manor, deep in the rolling country, where he could exercise his mind at leisure about matters beyond the ordinary business of his life. The nights were lengthening, and despite the warmth of the day and the dryness of weather, still he had begun to feel the dampness of the evenings, a sign of impending middle age. It was a reminder of what he should do, and he was glad to put aside the calling that had embraced him for so long. The pestilence in Cambridge had given him the opportunity for escape and time for contemplation. A new beginning must be made, for many years now he had earned little profit but a great deal of anxiety. Years of his life spent, never to be reclaimed, poring over ill written books, preparing ink to be spilt in useless words and symbols on dusty paper, trying to comprehend the gibbering of madmen and fools, in the dirt, foul habits, and smell of academia. Whenever he had tried to bring a new proposition forward he had brought down on his head a tirade of abuse and criticism. They were a precious, insufferable, mean minded group of men, the scholars, the scientists and the pretended logical mathematicians, and he wanted no more of them.

As for most of those who pretended to an interest in science, all they ever wanted to know was when lead might be made into gold or some distant light in the sky would bring them a rich widow. If he found the one, within a year all the church roofs would be stripped, and if the other, even more men of property would be found dead in their beds by a pillow dampened by the last breaths. He would be blamed by a howling mob and cast into The Fleet for necromancy and the casting of spells. The Royal Society were the worst asking for alchemists tricks to exclaim at, pretty light shows to gape at, or mountebanks’ surprises for their wonder. Show them the elegance of mathematics and the purity of reason and they could but sneer and sniff at their snuff. Hooke was everywhere, feeding their prejudices with his own puerile proofs, and having always visited the unknown before any other man.

Isaac knew he had many talents, and with the premium that poetry could command, never mind the Royal favours, the ladies with low d├ęcolletage, and all the personal adulation, he had arrived at the conclusion by a priori reasoning that it was time to make a little money. The difficulty was gauging and attracting the notice of the great persons of the Court. Rochester had risen in this way, and had died full of fame and respect. An end from well earned pox and drink in the fullness of life was inestimably better than one with a sermon and but a disputed calculation to leave as a memory. A shadow crossed his line of sight and he held his breath, waiting for the insult or the idiocy. “You be sitting on damp grass, good sir. You know the old saying, wet on the buttocks means rot in your futtocks.” Phoebe Langsdale waved a finger at her master and moved on, easing the basket of apples on the top of her well-fleshed thigh. Her family had come with the manor and the warning that a curse would fall on the owner who sent them packing. It must have been a most dreadful malediction to exceed the horrors of having Phoebe for a servant. She called over her shoulder, “And a hot day for the head means a chill night for your ears, shall I warm your night-cap?”

Isaac Newton banged the back of his head on the tree trunk to ease the anguish in his mind, and heard the rustle of leaves. Hell would be a room full of Phoebe’s chattering for eternity. He began to scribble, “I call upon thee! And compel! Thyself to be thy proper Hell!” He reflected, perhaps it was too pessimistic for the modern mind, and Phoebe would take some explaining, he would not want her to be mistaken for a lady close to his heart and body. Her voice floated from the kitchen, “When the nights be getting long, then old bones be not so strong.” Yes, it was autumn; Newton wrote again, “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,” and then considered; after a few seconds he scratched it out. It was obvious and trite, and not worthy poetry. His mind began to form an idea about something for publication in the next spring, when the times would be better. He thoughts of daffodils and began to tease out the possibilities. “Cloud? Vales, hills? When all at once I saw a crowd, A host, of golden daffodils; Lake, trees, Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.” He looked at the paper, dear lord, this was dreadful stuff, and a reader would roll on the floor with mirth. The raucous cracked voice of the maid of all work again came to his ears. Oh mercy, she was singing “Greensleeves” again. It was a song of long ago; perhaps an ancient tale in verse would be a success. “The way was long, the wind was cold. The minstrel was infirm and old.” But where was the man, what was he doing, what was it all going to be about, could a poem of past times really begin in such a mundane way. Would any one of sense ever read on?

It was thanks to Phoebe that his latest attempt at publication had attracted such widespread criticism and anger. Had her voice and clumsy way of working had not so distracted him, the mathematics would not have contained such a simple and vital error. It was not that which had caused the trouble; it might soon have been rectified, along with other changes in the proof of the book. It was the loon Thomas Beverley who had read the script without his consent, perceived in his algebra that the world would expire in the coming January, and had rushed out a tract on the streets using Newton’s name to make his sales.

Every time Newton had entered hall at Trinity College thereafter, some drunken divine would call, “Still here, eh, Newton?” A great many of the pamphlets had been sold in taverns and amongst the dissenting sects, so almost the entire population of London had migrated to Hampstead, been frozen stiff and covered with a light dusting of snow. They were still burning effigies of Newton at crossroads in the revenge of those who cannot forget.

He picked up the pen again, “This the way the world ends Not with a bang but a whimper.” No, his mind must be tiring. Phoebe’s voice trilled again, amusing her small niece, “Ladies go nym. nym, nym; doctors go trot, trot, trot; butchers go galloper, galloper, galloper.” Newton shook his head. The pen moved again, another attempt, “Cast a cold eye On Life, on death. Horseman, pass by!” No, it implied a disrespect of faith, and the English was poor. Again came Phoebe’s counterpoint, “Ollie Cromwell, with an axe, hit Whining Wentworth forty whacks. When he saw what he had done, he hit King Charlie forty-one!” He felt a pang of pity for the niece, more of that and she would have a troubled life. But he shouted to Phoebe to have a care, these were difficult times. Silly sayings and malicious evidence could have a man sent to Hell or Connaught, or even worse Trinity at Dublin, where the drunkenness and excrescences defied even those of his own college.

Newton wrote, “As our life is very short, so it is very miserable, and therefore it is as well it is short.” Again it was wrong, he could not see, for example, the good people of Uppingham liking such a sentiment. But they did not matter in his schemes. They had only scraps of silver to offer. Newton wanted newly minted money, warm from the die, bags of it, spices, fat meats, the delights of the tropics, silks, and cushions for his seats, all the flattery and deference he could command with the full fruits of arrogance and power. All that would matter would be the celebration of his name.

Phoebe had fallen over the cat, and was beating it with a broom, another of its nine lives gone. Another beginning, “For he who lives more lives than one, More deaths than one must die.” This was ridiculous, a complete absence of wit or style. He was now at a loss. Along the lane Tom the Tranter was passing, a man capable of distracting even those who lay in the Churchyard and Newton heard the shouted proposition he made to Phoebe. He judged that if that was his appetite, then the tranter had been spending too much time with his horse. “You put your money where your mouth is!” was Phoebe’s rejoinder, confident that Tom was not a paying man.

Newton thought for a moment, money, he had to think of those who had it, there was the path to the garnering of wealth, something to appeal to the aristocracy; those beings who dictated success in all the arts; and in literature by their patronage. “”The Stately Homes of England, How beautiful they stand, To prove the Upper Classes, Have still the upper hand.” At last, the words of truth and understanding had come, he could see his way forward.

Phoebe stood over him again, “Well?” “We need a long talk about the housekeeping, master, I was three farthings short this week and…?” She talked for some time. He struggled with his jacket to pull out the purse while she rattled on, unceasingly. He stood, found the purse and thrust several pence into her hand. “Oh, not that much, master.” she said, giving him back some of the coin, and counting it three times. He sat down, picked up the pencil and paper again, shivered as he tried to concentrate, and realised that the trickle of consciousness had been lost. What was it to be; a great ducal palace he would call Xanadu, pleasure domes, walls and towers, a mighty fountain? All gone; flown from memory. The immortal verse that was to bring him fortune had been lost in the thickets of Phoebe’s tangled arithmetic. He banged the back of his head against the tree, and as he sat stiff, felt the blow of a large apple that had detached itself on his encouragement. It hit the crown of his head and added a sharp physical pain to the mental torment.

Newton stifled the scream of rage that was rising from his gorge. As her plump body lumbered its way towards the house he rose, picked up the apple, and threw it as hard as he could. He was never a sporting man, and he was well wide of the mark. The apple curved over her head and went out of sight beyond the hedge and into the rutted road. A moment later there was shouting and a red burned dirty face appeared through the branches of hornbeam. It was Tom the Tranter, returning from his errand, who waved his fist and swore at Phoebe. She shook hers back and pointed towards Newton. “One sin shall destroy a sinner!” she shouted, which only served to make Tom angrier and more obscene. Newton attempted to quiet him with humour, “What goes up must come down!” he cried with a forced laugh that was as ugly as his mood.

It was another error of judgment to add to the many he made in his dealings with the lower orders. This triggered a richer volley of abuse, for Tom was very angry. “Why should an honest work man be a thing for a rich man’s jest? Is not my life solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short enough for you? For a man of quality you be a damned fool and may you rot in hell.” Newton tried to make his peace, but did not altogether succeed. Tom though, did remember that he had trade from Newton in the past and might need more in the future, there were few enough men with any coin in this part of the country, and withdrew muttering and cursing his way down the road to Stainby.

Phoebe turned to Newton, “What goes up must come down, indeed!” She rubbed her hands fiercely on her apron. “My old dad, he says that for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Phoebe sniffed with righteousness, and returned to her kitchen. Newton made his way back to the tree. He slumped back hard, causing the branches to sway and crackle. He picked up his pencil and paper again; now it was becoming late for poetry, mystery, and the beauty of language. The second apple hit him on the same part of the head as the first, and to mock him a shower of others bounced off his limbs.

Newton spent some minutes rehearsing Tom’s range of invective and embroidering it into his hatred for Phoebe. The vision of her became a pasty wobbling moon that obliterated the sun and the heavens from his mind. Her last mouthing was far, far, beyond the realms of madness and nonsense, and triggered the most powerful anger his temper could command. The whirl of his mind made him tremble that the universe would collapse in a blinding flash. Isaac relapsed into stilled silence for a full five minutes. Then, he began to doodle calculations below the scribbled and defaced words.

Monday 7 September 2009

The Madness Of Prime Minister George

As speculation launched on the net about the Prime Minister’s health, and as I am certainly not disposed to be kind to him, many would have thought I would have been amongst the first to cut to the chase. But it may not be that at all, it could be quite complicated. First, the simple question, ‘ang on a bit squire, what do we know? It is said that there is a list circulated in Whitehall circles about what the PM can and cannot eat or drink. A medical man has seen this and deduced that it is consistent with someone who is on early generation anti-depressants, which have significant dietary and other side effects because recent generation ones cannot cope with the alleged condition.

What else do we know? Well the PM is getting older by the day, who isn’t? Also, he is in a very stressful job, all those idiots he has working for him. Moreover the job entails extensive travel and contact with people from across the world. Enough to put anybody’s immune system under severe strain, but this does not make him mentally ill. It might make him unpredictable, exhausted, and very grumpy, all those idiots again, but no more than I am on a bad day after dealing with the bank, the insurance company, and trying to persuade a plumber to come.

So what else can happen that entails a diet list as long as your arm, and as complicated as the list of contents on a supermarket food package cheap offer? As many people become older, all sorts of glitches can affect the body. Many begin to react to gluten, others to dairy foods, some to both. Others begin to have skin issues, and other reactions to common products, entailing visits to dermatologists and others specialists. The really unlucky can contract multiple chemical sensitivity.

Recent research had identified a brain reaction to this complaint, which apparently also occurs with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and ME, Gulf War Syndrome, US Vets Agent Orange reactions, some true Allergy, and perhaps others involving synthetic chemicals, notably fragrances. Along with fragrance issues can come severe reactions to a related chemical family, that is synthetic flavourings and flavour enhancers. As for synthetic fragrances, do not forget, they are engineered to hit the brain hard.

These synthetic chemicals in the food and around the house have become hugely stronger in recent years. So, read your food packaging lately? Wondered why the tummy rumbles after the breakfast sausages? In addition, there are some chemicals added to wines as stabilisers that do not suit some people.

Unless you are at the wrong end of some of these complaints you cannot know how much they disrupt your lives, require constant vigilance about diet, and how they add to life’s difficulties. Those in busy demanding jobs have real trouble. If the PM’s immune system is affected, and if he had had severe inflammation of the gut etc. it will take a lot of effort, and a good deal of rest to deal with it.

The real problem that many people face when they have these problems is that the doctors they deal with haven’t a clue about such complexities, they just give the problem a convenient label, often tell them it is in the mind, throw some inappropriate medication at it, and tick the boxes. In any case there are few specialists in the field and it is very difficult, often impossible, to get a referral.

So, is there anyone you know who is having problems and the pills don’t work? If so, please do not assume that it is all in the mind. Remember, for two hundred years King George III was said to be mad, now it seems that it was likely to have been porphyria. Something his doctors knew nothing about, and few modern doctors are aware of or know how to treat.

Sunday 6 September 2009

Tax Havens – Another One Bust – The Cayman Islands

Tax Havens – Another One Bust – The Cayman Islands

With the media and our political leaders fixed on the election campaign, the continuing jostling for position over spending, and looking for good smears of one kind or another, out there in the real world things are becoming out of control. The G20 has held another feast day to little purpose, and the worlds financial experts have had a nice photograph taken after dinner but not much else. In the meantime there is a story that China may let some of its weaker hedge funds default. The question is who would the Chinese prefer to suffer the most? Just as worrying, another tax haven in real trouble with unknown and potentially dangerous consequences is the Cayman Islands.

Guess who could be holding the bag in both cases? Yes, the British taxpayer could be called to the rescue yet again. Perhaps I should change the comment on all this from “Bloggo ergo sum” to “Ad nauseam”, it would be appropriate in more ways than one. It is argued if there is a major crash in this jurisdiction it will be a major event on the scale of those in 2008 that nearly triggered a catastrophic failure in the world’s monetary systems. Because these tax havens are secrecy jurisdictions there is no means of knowing beforehand who will be affected, to what extent, and with what collateral damage.

On Friday 1 May in “More Taxing Problems” relating to the UK taking over direct rule in the bankrupt Turks and Caicos Islands, I referred back to the Wednesday 25 March and an item on “A Taxing Problem” on The Bahamas, also where the government has difficulties, which was a revised version of my letter in the FT in February 2000. It suggested that dealing with the Tax Havens might not be a simple business if things went wrong. Yes, the date is right, 2000 it was.

If the governments of Tax Havens which are either UK controlled or Commonwealth members as former colonies collapse because they cannot fund themselves, then who is going to bail them out? There is serious, because whilst the ordinary people will need all the help they can get, just to hand over funds without major structural tax reforms entails giving huge indirect financial support to mega rich celebrities, show biz people, billionaire financiers, sundry Ponzi scheme operators, the Granny Basher property dealers, and of course all those lovely people engaged in free market medication, or rather the narcotics drug trades.
None of this makes comfortable reading. Most “Havens” have rich mobile elites owning property in fortified and heavily guarded settlements serviced by cheap migrant labour and luxury commodities supplied from abroad. The majority of the ordinary people live in real poverty, and also lose out because much of the tax base is regressive sales taxes and other charges. It could become highly unstable.

The Cayman Islands implications spill over into Jamaica, The Bahamas into Haiti, and others into places with their own problems. In Antigua, as we know, all those Texan cricket fans are in real trouble, as in gaol. Has anybody seen Bernie lately?
Richard Murphy of the Tax Research Blog has posted on the Cayman Islands issue setting out the problems bluntly and in full:

“No, you didn’t read that incorrectly. Cayman is insolvent, bust, broke, unable to pay its debts. This is not a rumour, this is fact. This fact is confirmed by the speaking notes used by the Hon. McKeeva Bush for a meeting held with senior Cayman civil servants, government boards and private sector business leaders last Thursday (27 Aug).

So desperate is the current crisis that the Caymans turned to the UK to cover September’s deficit, and have been politely told they may not borrow the necessary funds to pay wages and other commitments in that month.

That means just one thing: Cayman is insolvent. It cannot pay its debts. The UK has refused to let Cayman borrow because it does not believe it will cut government spending and it has seen no commitment by Cayman to raise taxes. And the UK makes it clear in no uncertain terms that is exactly what it thinks Cayman should do.
Look at what he (Chris Bryant) is saying:

1. The US is fragile;
2. The hedge fund business is fragile;
3. The G20 will have an impact;
4. The Foot Commission will have an impact;
5. Trust fund income will fall;
6. Cayman cannot assume it will keep tax haven status;
6. Taxes must be imposed.

It’s hard to see how much more could have been said to make clear that Cayman’s business model is dead. This is extraordinary. Bear in mind Cayman has the thirteenth highest GDP per head in the world, and the highest in the Caribbean. It has more multinational corporation subsidiaries than any other tax haven. It has more banks than any other tax secrecy jurisdiction, and more hedge funds too. And it is bust.

So what are they proposing to do? Unbelievably all proposed taxes are on ordinary people in Cayman:

Imposing taxes on money transfers from foreign workers in Cayman, – Jamaicans being the biggest group;
Introducing property taxes;
Revision to various miscellaneous fees, some of which have remained unchanged for decades;
Increasing customs duties;
Increasing alcohol and tobacco duties;
Increasing gasoline tax;
Legislate the requirement for money in dormant bank accounts to be turned over to the Government; and the
Introduction of a national lottery

That is grossly unfair on the poor in Cayman (the very people the UK says should be protected), shows no real broadening of the tax base but does, most of all, look like rearranging the deck chairs as the ship is sinking. Which is extraordinary by itself in two ways. First, for a place supposedly so clever this is a remarkably poor list of initiatives, and second it does of course say yet again that the vested interest of wealth is being protected.

The odd thing is that is not possible in this situation. If Cayman really is insolvent, and that seems likely, then it is very clear that law and order may fail, property rights may not be protected, and so on. Wealth, in other words, is under real threat and such is the size of Cayman activity I doubt much of it can get out in a hurry without causing massive instability.

So this really is a crisis at the heart of the whole tax haven / secrecy jurisdiction system. The totem of the offshore location is seeing its business model fail, and with it the whole edifice of offshore – including the whole hedge fund edifice that claims to be built around this small island, could fall with it.

This could be a Lehman scale failure. And all for the sake of a few dollars. But a few dollars none the less the UK will not let them have.

Watch this unfold: if London sticks to its guns (and it should) then Cayman is over as a tax haven – as they themselves predict. The fall out will be enormous. The whole hidden economy could fall apart with it – and do not think that will not have onshore ramifications, because it will.

This is what Richard says, so what else is there?

From The Nassau Guardian (29th April 2009)
Prime Minister Hubert Ingraham said the revenue shortfall experienced this fiscal year is so drastic that collecting "every dollar" that it is owed to the government will not be enough to remedy the situation."The hard reality of revenue shortfalls is hitting this Caribbean tax haven hard, and it's having to borrow $200m from a consortium of banks:"If you are not making the money, how else do you recoup it? By taxing you more? How else [do we] do it other than taxing you more?"

Ingraham asked. "There are only (so many) ways to do it: Cut back on services, which means you cut back on people and the delivery of services; increase taxes; or borrow; or a combination of all three."

A contributor to the Tax Justice Network site added this:

"Wondering if some of those delinquent debtors to the Bahamian Treasury on their real property taxes include wealthy individuals who have bought their luxurious behind-locked-gates residences to acquire economic residency, in order to avoid paying taxes due to their original home state? Are there individuals double-dipping on the cheating? And what about the foreign owned banks and trust companies whose very existence there is to provide tax-cheat services? ... Do they have an obligation to pay taxes and are any delinquent?"
Let me see, a tax haven is a community centred on a very rich minority who more or less answer to nobody and pay little or no taxes to anybody anywhere. It is serviced by a dominating financial sector that uses expatriates and others. The local economy that supports this is largely a low wage sector many of which are recent migrants. The politicians are in their pockets and their families employed in the high pay end of the financial industry.

There is unending hype about what makes this a wonderful place to be, and how all those rich are making everybody happy. Does this remind you of anywhere? I’ll give you a clue; some of us call it Iceland On Thames. No wonder our government is passionate on recreating a large and corrupt financial sector in the City, they have a lot of favours to pay off.

Once again, The Big Question, who amongst our political masters have offshore Trusts and accounts in secrecy jurisdictions, and where are they? Watch out now for all those who will be urging help for the plutocrats in peril in tax havens, it might suggest who they are. There may be more to come.