Category Archives: Politics

Musings on political and economic matters.

Mourning the dead

What happened in Manchester on 22 May is of course a tragedy and an atrocity. However, as I take in the images of the dead children and their grieving relatives, the memorials, the news items, the interviews, the debate and the double-page spreads, I can’t help but think of those countless other children who have been killed in their schools and hospitals and homes by the bombs of the West and its allies in countries like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Palestine. They too had hopes and dreams; they too have parents, friends, neighbours and relatives who grieve and feel anger and despair. I did not see their pictures, and I do not know their hopes and dreams, but are their lives worth any less than ours? Is their grief or their anger and despair any less valid than ours? Of course not, and if that is the appearance we give, then we should be ashamed.

Brexit bullshit (1)

BrexitWe should by now be well accustomed to the capacity of our politicians to spout endless bullshit, and of our news services to take such bullshit seriously. However seldom has that bullshit seemed more endless and pointless than in the current Brexit ‘debate’.

For example, as I write, so-called Brexiteers are crowing over the fact that the British economy seems to be booming, despite the woeful predictions of the Remoaners. This is to ignore the fact that we have a least two years to go before we do actually Brexit, and no idea of what that will actually involve, rendering any judgement at this stage utterly meaningless. Instead, what our economy is currently experiencing is the reaction of the world to the inevitable uncertainty that surrounds our decision to do so. Continue reading

Listening to the homeless

Photo by Albert Bridge and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

Photo by Albert Bridge (Creative Commons licence)

At around 11pm a few nights back I was walking through the centre of Bath when I encountered a woman and her dog sitting on a blanket next to a hat containing some small change. I did what I usually do when I encounter such people, which is acknowledge them and walk on, reminding myself that I can’t give money to every beggar I pass, and I do regularly donate to charities that work with the homeless.

However this time, having walked on a few yards, I stopped and returned. I had just come from a party where I had been talking to some extremely wealthy people, and I am not exactly hard up myself. Life works out nicely for some of us and not so well for others, but when all’s said and done, we’re in it together. I dropped a couple of pounds into her hat and apologised for my rudeness. No, she said, Don’t apologise – it’s nice to just get a smile. And so I listened to her story. Continue reading

Is Waterstones selling Kindle ebooks?

Anyone who has wandered into a Waterstones bookstore recently will have noticed a display of Amazon Kindle ebook readers, apparently for sale at the same prices as those displayed on the Amazon Web site itself. More recently you would also have noticed prominent signs encouraging you to connect your Kindle to the free in-store WiFi, from which you could presumably buy any book you fancy directly from Amazon. So why is Waterstones doing this?

James Daunt, MD of Waterstones, announced a deal with Amazon back in May 2012, but was reticent to discuss the “commercial details of the partnership.” Howevere his response to the accusation that he had signed the company’s death warrant was: “Do I look like a total moron? Because what you’re describing is the behaviour of a total moron.” (BBC News)

So there is definitely more to the arrangement than meets the eye. What I have heard from private inquiries is that a substantial chunk of the proceeds of a purchase made from a Kindle through the in-store WiFi go to Waterstones, rather than Amazon. In return Waterstones makes no profit on the devices themselves, which is why they match Amazon prices.

Waterstones press office still refused to disclose details of the deal when I spoke to them this morning, but they did not deny this was the case, and indeed confirmed they had heard the rumour before. If it is the case then I assume the details are being kept quiet to prevent unrest from competitors. There will also be technical changes that need to be tested. However such a deal would allow traditional bookstores to participate in the ebook boom, which can only be a good thing.

Will robots kill the market economy?

Photo by Richard Greenhill and Hugo Elias of the Shadow Robot Company via Wikimedia Commons.

I recently attended the Master Investor conference, held at the Business Design Centre in Islington. One of the speakers was the highly successful investor Jim Mellon who gave a succinct summary of world markets as they stand today. But what particularly caught my attention were his remarks towards the end of his speech, when he touched upon the effects that robotics will have upon the modern world.

This is apparently to be the subject of his next book, and he did make it clear that he had yet to map out all the implications. However his central argument is that the increasing use of robots in factories (particularly in developing countries), and the imminent arrival of more intelligent machines that can – for example – drive cars, will inevitably lead to unemployment at levels far beyond those we are experiencing in the current recession. As Mellon pointed out, when £25,000 will buy a robot that doesn’t need sleep or holidays, never makes a mistake and will never draw a pension, why continue spending similar amounts every year to employ a human being who does and will? Continue reading

The privatisation of the NHS

Free Online PicturesNow that the government’s plans for the privatisation of the NHS have become clear, I thought I should pen a quick guide to help the modern entrepreneur take advantage of the opportunities arising:

  1. This is essentially a scheme that allows you to divert large quantities of taxpayers money into your own pocket through the dividends, bonuses and executive pension opportunities open to you and your fellow board members. Remember to contact your tax advisor for information on the many tax avoidance schemes that you might be able to use.
  2. It will of course be necessary to pay yourself a salary high enough to ensure that you aren’t tempted to transfer your services elsewhere.
  3. Don’t worry if things go belly-up as the government is not about to let an NHS service provider go bankrupt. Instead they are likely to hand over even more public funds in an effort to keep your company afloat, which of course you can continue to divert into dividends, bonuses and executive pension schemes.
  4. Don’t worry too much about the quality of the service you actually deliver. Even if things get so bad that some of your employees are prosecuted and end up in jail, it is highly unlikely that you will be held to account.

And of course, if it does all go wrong, or the derision of the press becomes too uncomfortable, you can always retire to the tax haven where you’ve deposited your well-earned takings.

Banker bonuses: a customer’s view

So far the debate on banker bonuses seems to have focused on two areas: the unfairness and inequality that the bonuses represent, and the value (or not) that they add to the businesses they run. The first represents the view of society as a whole, questioning whether anyone is worth a million-pound bonus on top of their million-pound salary. The second represents (or is supposed to represent) the view of the shareholders, who are putting it in perspective with the billion-pound profits of the banks they own.

However I think there is another equally valid perspective, namely that of the customers. Let’s see how well they’ve done there: Continue reading

The nature of debt

A stranger is staying at a hotel in a small town high up in the mountains for a few days. Shortly after his guest has eaten breakfast and left for the day, the hotel owner notices that he has left his wallet on the table. Business is bad, everyone is in debt, and the baker has refused to sell the hotelier any more bread until he pays the £100 that he owes. The hotelier can see that there are five £20 notes in his guest’s wallet, and after wrestling with his conscience for a short while, steals the money and takes it down the baker, who restores the hotelier’s line of credit.

The baker is particularly grateful to the hotelier as he happens to owe the butcher £100, so he takes the banknotes across to the butcher’s shop and settles his bill. The butcher in turn owes the local garage £100 for repairs to his car, so he uses the money to pay off his bill. The garage owner realises that he can now pay the hotelier the £100 he owes for the meal bought last weekend, so he pops into the hotel and gives the money to the hotelier. Moments later, the guest returns. The hotelier, seeing him come through the door, quickly puts the £100 back in the wallet and hands it back to the guest.

At first sight, there is something odd about this tale. Everyone in the town appears to have paid off their debts and yet, at the end of the day, the stranger still gets his £100 back. How can this work? Where did the money come from? Continue reading

Games theory

Although often discredited, Games Theory can still shed light on human behaviour. What follows is an extract from a work-in-progress:

Game TheoryGames Theory is the study of situations where two or more players interact in accordance with a set of rules, and in particular where such situations arise in our political and economic life. Surprisingly it is fairly recent, generally considered to date from 1928 when John von Neumann’s book Zur Theorie der Gesellschaftsspiele (‘On the Theory of Parlour Games’) was first published. This was followed in 1944 by Theory of Games and Economic Behavior which Neumann co-authored with Oskar Morgenstern.

There are essentially two types of games. Zero-sum games are those where one player wins and the other loses. Typical examples include tic-tac-toe (also known as noughts and crosses), chess, poker and football. Rather more interesting are non zero-sum games where outcomes include the possibility of both players improving their situation. Perhaps the most important non zero-sum game in the economic world is the act of shopping. Sellers only sell their goods when they regard the money being offered as having greater value than the goods itself. Buyers only buy when they regard the goods as being worth more than the money asked. If both sides can agree a price then both walk away from the deal as winners. Continue reading