Friday 30 September 2016

30 somethings half as wealthy as 40 somethings

Interesting report from the Institute of Fiscal Studies. Younger people are poorer on average than older people.

As ever, I love anecdotal evidence from my own view, my large team at work would confirm this. Many people happily working for the wages the same or lower than I had when I was their age.

Note the SAME wages, not adjusted for inflation. So when combining that with rent increases and cost of living increases they have a much harder time. Yes, due to social media and internet technology (and cheaper travel) they do I think have richer cultural lives than were possible; but it is on more of s shoestring and a live for today mentality prevails ever more.

Yet the report for me lacks one huge point (which they note they will get around to later), which is longevity. One of the reasons younger people are poorer is because their parents are still alive - for which overall they will be very grateful for in the round.

With every passing generation the age of inheritance is set to increase, possibly by 5-10 years each time. Plus of course the elderly will spend more of their wealth on supporting themselves, thus leaving less to hand on.

As I said, this is a hugely great thing for us all collectively, but does have ever bigger ramifications down the ages, literally.

It is an odd thing for a report like this to miss though, as this skew is one of the larger longer-term trends that affects the whole study and so renders what is left fairly incomplete.

Thursday 29 September 2016

The Uses of Words in Politics

Yesterday CU wrote on the use / abuse made by Corbyn of the phrase "so-called free market", with several comments ensuing around whether he was in fact challenging the degree to which markets are indeed free. 

I suspect there is something else going on, it's an Orwellian thing to shift the terms of trade (as part of the McDonnell strategy), and thus the whole political framework, or Overton Window if you prefer .

In particular they are trying to overturn the Blairite list of shibboleths** - under which the Labour Party member on the rostrum at Conference wasn't to permit criticism of free markets, nuclear deterrent, council house sales, etc to cross their lips: and, of course, not even allowed to utter the word 'socialism' at all.  I'd say that last one has been quite effectively resuscitated now, just this very week.

It's hardly new: we see more-or-less successful manifestations this strategy going on all the time, not least in the attempts to ram home the 'PC' ethos.  Orwell, of course, (in the famous Newspeak essay at the end of 1984) claimed that if the word 'freedom' was never used, the proles wouldn't have access to the very concept.  From wiki (first quotation is from Orwell himself):
"the purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever."  For example, the word "free" still existed in Newspeak but could only be used in terms of something not being possessed, as in "the dog is free from lice," or "this field is free from weeds." It could not be used in terms of being able to do as one pleases, as in "free choice" or "free will" since these concepts no longer existed. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of though.
Of course, the flipside is the coinage of clever new phrases - an American speciality - to facilitate whatever it is your are pushing, be that by advertising copywriters or political speechwriters.

As it happens, I'd dispute the assertion that this kind of linguistic endeavour could successfully eradicate concepts: although of course (a) that doesn't stop people trying and (b) the lack of a handle or helpful phrase can certainly inhibit dicussion etc.  But - to use Orwell's own example against him - if a Newspeak user knows the meaning of the dog is free from lice, then at very least I'd like to be free from the Party is something a subtle language-user could understand by metaphorical extension, even if it were to be a novel and even alien usage.  That's how poetry works: and explanations of complex new ideas in science, etc etc.  Happens all the time. 

** Bizarrely, Gordon Brown banned the use of the phrase 'market failure' in connection with anything that happened in the economy while he was in charge. I know this sounds odd but it is true: I was once asked to advise the government of that period on a strange incident in the UK energy market, and was solemnly told by the civil servants that whatever I concluded, the report must not contain those dreaded words ...

Wednesday 28 September 2016

"People are fed-up with the so-called Free Market"

What is it with this 'so-called' phrase, very popular amongst ignorant people. Above is Jeremy Corbyn using it today is his sad and dreary speech to the demented left wing tribe. Did id start with so-called Islamic State to make a pedantic point? I don't know, but it is a good guide that when someone uses the phrase, they don't know what they are talking about. So I guess it has its use...

The Free Market after all has delivered more prosperity to more people and than any invention of history. Even the Communist Chinese Government decided to harness its power, but look what that has achieved for them....

A bizarre man for a bizarre age. The best thing about Corbyn today is too see all the support from 'moderate' Labour MP's as they get back into line behind the crazy old fool.

Tuesday 27 September 2016

Jeremy, Karl and their Little Friends

Some more musings over just how potentially revolutionary is the situation that may be brewing in the triumphant Corbyn / McDonnell / Momentum camp, as clearly lots of their fan-base believe it is.

Let's start with little Paul Mason, tipped to be a major force in the renewed Corbyn leadership team.  An unabashed marxist, Mason has spent much of the post-2008 period eagerly spotting revolutionary straws in the wind all over the northern hemisphere - but at the same time, as a good journo with at least some regard for the facts, he's been fairly honest in reporting just how disappointing it often turns out to be.  In his more sober moments he even thinks modern youth movements don't actually have what it takes - stamina, attention, focus, discipline, commitment etc - which must indeed be pretty disappointing (particuarly for an old stalinist like McDonnell).   Still, hope springs eternal and Mason's hoping.

So.  Let's rehearse what Marx actually said.  Drawing a kindly veil over his labour theory of value, we should recall he gave a cracking account of the superiority of capitalism over all that went before and, in socio-political terms, warned of the potential dangers of gross and accelerating inequalities in society: inequalities which, he reckoned, were an inevitable long-term outworking of capitalism.  There are plenty today, including many who are not remotely marxist in outlook, who'd agree with him on the dangers, if not the inevitability.

Marx then went on to blow his credibility for most people by concluding that the conditions he asserted were necessary and sufficient for the Revolution to happen, were already present in the 19th century.  That, coupled with the history of the century that followed (when the only instances of 'communist revolution' occurred in agrarian societies! - not at all what Marx envisaged) pretty much scuppered him in polite society long before the 21st century came around.

His conditions for revolution?  That the working class becomes so impoverished - not just relative to the "1%" but in absolute, subsistence-level, on-the-breadline terms - and, at the same time, capitalism becomes so dramatically productive and generates so much surplus wealth, that the workers grasp intuitively that any change in political power whatsoever would leave them better off.  Oh, and that this will happen at the global, not national level.
There are one or two compelling reasons why we ain't there just yet - not while the workshop of capitalism is managed by the Chinese 'Communist' Party! - whatever the average Momentum supporter hopes or believes.  Their own theory, for those that have any political theory, condemns them as bourgeois dilletantes.  Coincidentally, many less theoretically-inclined observers have reached the same conclusion: idle middle-class w*nk*rs.

Which brings us to little Owen Jones who, to do him credit, is also showing signs of Monbiot-Mason syndrome, i.e. on a good day he feels obliged to notice the truth.  He wants to believe: oh, how he wants to believe!  From the Graun:
After his victory last year, Corbyn’s acceptance speech was criticised for having little to say about reaching out to the country as a whole. Not this time. He was passionate in his calls for unity: “We’re part of the same Labour family,” as he put it. No retribution, no bitterness. He made it clear that Labour was in it to win, would take it to the Tories and focus on developing a compelling alternative. He looked like a leader.
The Labour movement now brims with anger, mutual distrust and looming internecine warfare ... if this fury is unchecked, then Labour will implode as a political force. 
  What can be done to keep the show on the road? 
Hope for the future lies with critical friends of the Labour leadership. They will be attacked by all sides. The uncompromising anti-Corbyn wing will see them as naive accomplices of electoral oblivion. The most ardent leadership loyalists will see them as naive capitulators to saboteurs who will never accept a left-led Labour party. In such a polarised atmosphere, nuance is regarded as flip-flopping, fence-sitting, standing in the middle of the road and being hit by traffic in both directions, to paraphrase Nye Bevan. But whatever derision they face, critical friends are pivotal to both the survival and success of the left in general, and Labour in particular ... Critical friends are critical not because they want the left to fail. They are desperate for it to succeed. Ignoring challenges and problems, and pretending when things go wrong that it is always the media and the parliamentary party to blame, will lead to terrible defeat.
I think we may safely guess who's volunteering to be the critical-friend-in-chief.  Well, the way you put it, it sounds like a really tough gig Owen - but someone has to do it, eh?  But that does rather imply he's no longer to be counted among the ranks of the faithful.  And it's only been going a year.  Maybe not the revolution, after all.


Monday 26 September 2016

Remainers still pro-EU...3 months on

I guess it is hard to expect any different from the FT, but today's headline of how worried the City are (in reality it is an ex-bank CEO who is now a spinner for  The CityUK) is very unbalanced.

Big banks, especially US ones, are worried. They are worried because they do not like change to the status quo which has them as top dogs an unchallengeable. For the US, the Trump factor also means that they do not want to have more political uncertainty than they have to.

The UK though is very divided, this one of the worst points to come out of the referendum. For a long time in the future the country will be split on Leave/Remain terms, with the accompanying Shires vs Cities and Liberal vs Conservative split. (I find it so weird the political parties have not realigned themselves with voters here, but perhaps with time).

Also intriguing though is the threat of 'Hard' Brexit and yet this always seemed the most likely outcome given EU intransigence and the sheer difficulty of trying to negotiate a deal within 2 years. Hard Brexit will be a shock, but of course it will be much worse for the EU than the UK (given trade flows). Thus the UK will continue or even increase its role as a safe haven, untied from European travails which run aplenty.

The big downside to the Remoaning is that no other views appear. KPMG has released a study today saying all CEO's are looking at moving business...all the PR guns are lined up to remaon just as they were lined up for remain. This talking the country down piece is frustrating as it makes a difficult situation worse than it needs to be and stops the brightest and best form coming up with the solutions required - so focussed are they on spinning for remoan.

Saturday 24 September 2016

Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.

‘Where there is discord, may we bring harmony. Where there is error, may we bring truth. Where there is doubt, may we bring faith. And where there is despair, may we bring hope’ 

Margaret Thatcher on becoming Prime Minister
Not very likely. Probably the best that Labour can hope for is no overt resumption of the civil war and outright hostilities.
Just a few weeks ago, 172 labour MPs failed to back their newly reappointed leader on the grounds he was a terrible leader. 
their publicly expressed concern was not that he was a comedy-lefty Marxist throwback to the 1980s. But that he wasn't very good at being the leader. Well, he is the leader. And has cemented himself even more firmly in place.
Partly, because he has a lot of support from labour in the country. Partly because of his own iron will. Partly because his PLP opponents were, unbelievably, even more inept at ousting their leader than usual.
Choosing the unknown Owen Smith and endorsing his campaign of agreeing with everything Jeremy Corbyn says but just not how he says it, has left the bulk of the elected Labour party with an even bigger problem than they had before.
They have actively supported all the wild eyed talk of renationalising everything. No to any selective education. Building 25 billion new homes a week. 200% taxation of banks etc. The only disagreement was on the MPs preference to remain in the EU and to renew trident. Something Corbyn opposes and probably has far more support on than his MPs.
So, what can those MPs do now? What options do they have? Another coup is preposterous. Corbyn has shown he won't quit  even if  3/4 of his MPs have no confidence in him. He has won the leadership with an increased majority. He cannot be toppled from his High Sparrow cult by 'outsiders'.
There seems to be no appetite at all for the breakaway option. Forming a new labour party with the remnants of the Liberal Democrats. If all 172 MPs set off into  new party, they would probably become the official opposition. That gets Corbyn silenced in the House of Commons. They could vote their own new moderate leader and have the left wing media concentrating on their message whilst trying to portray Corby's labour as extremists. Far easier to do that if you are a separate party. Rather than the same party trying to back and sack the Corbynites at the same time.
If they can become the official opposition they can use the boundary review to reduce the power of the Corbynistas.
Most likely is the wait and see and hope option. Hope that Corbyn falls down some stairs. See if Brexit causes financial Armageddon and people are forced to vote labour. Wait until after the election and the expected wipe-out, and then pick up the pieces and start again.
None are really very attractive. 
if I was over on their side I think a Gandhi approach might be the answer. Passive disobedience. 
When the leader makes a speech, don't attend. When policies are announced, do nothing. No applause in the House. No boos either. Just a silence. Don't engage with the cabinet or the leader at all. behave as a seperate party within a party. If ever asked their view by the media, then damning with faint praise.

"This is one of Jeremy's least worst ideas yet. So we are making steady progress"
"He is improving. Very slowly of course. We have to accept that .. But all the time a slight improvement, don't you think?"
"He rso is trying his best..and you know that really should count for something....effort should be recognised, don't you think?"
"So, we lose a fifty odd seats at the next election..Does that really matter..? Ok..So the Tories will be in power for ever..But we...We, under the firm leadership of Jeremy and John,  will be in full control of the moral high ground.  And that's almost as good as being in government, isn't it?"

What other options are there?


Thursday 22 September 2016

The "New Narcotics" Is ...

... 'waste crime' - or so saith the Environment Agency.
"The offences, sometimes involving organised crime gangs, range from illegal dumping of household and industrial waste to massive frauds involving recycling fees and landfill tax"
And, actually, I buy this to some extent, allowing for the hyperbole this new chap at the top is using to get his headlines.  (People-smuggling, of course, is the real new global crimewave, but let that pass.)  And whatever troubles the EA reckon they confront here, you wouldn't be hard-pressed to find countries where it's all a hundred times worse.

Smart legislation and enforcement is critical.  Many of the folks around here who particpated in our heated 'plastic-bag' thread are likely to disagree with me on this, but I am unrepentant.  There is so much scope for greater efficiency by reducing waste, it's one of the great sources of potential future growth that makes Malthusian predictions wrong.  If we extend the waste-reckoning to my own patch, energy, there is vast untapped potential for efficiencies in that sphere.  That can be viewed - properly, IMHO - as genuine market failure in many cases, where the potential investor in a self-financing efficiency scheme can't raise the capital or, as is notorious in the social housing sector, where the potential beneficiary (the energy bill-payer) isn't the party able to do the work.

But when it works, it's game-changing.  The introduction of steam-pumping in the Cornish mines reduced operating costs by 90% (sic) - which is how the world moves forward.  Mercifully, in many circumstances the potent combination of technology, capitalism and self-interest do the necessary unaided.

Not everything yields to legislation: we read that half the food purchased in the USA goes uneaten which, even allowing for some inevitable trimmings-waste, is pretty grotesque - given how much they do actually eat.  But that one's a deep societal malaise.

Then we get other 'capitalist' stories like the 'landscaping' of golf courses with landfill: hard to know whether to laugh or cry.  Dumb legislation and non-enforcement are counter-productive in the extreme, and there's no shortage of that.

As part of the overall mix in this complicated stew, I note that the Kidz are all supposed these days to be vehement on the subject of Their Future and how we are all messing the world up for them.  But the schoolchildren I see are considerably more prone to discard half-consumed fast-food - in quantity, and randomly across the pavement - than I ever recall.  Ditto their consumerist attitudes to outmoded clothing, electrics etc etc.

Yeah, showing my age there, I know ...  but the point remains.  Decades of worthy green banging-on have had an impact of sorts, but hardly a wholesale change of attitudes across the population as a whole.  Some things need to be forced along a bit.


Wednesday 21 September 2016

ONS - No effect of Brexit

This is a very telling piece to come out today from the ONS.

There has been very little economic impact of Brexit. The remoaners will be keen to say all is yet to come and hell and damnation lies in the fuzzy, but not too distant future.

This of course makes remoaners sound like Mayan prophesiers (ironic!):

"This catastrophe was initially predicted for May 2003, but when nothing happened the doomsday date was moved forward to December 2012 and linked to the end of one of the cycles in the ancient Mayan calendar at the winter solstice in 2012 - hence the predicted doomsday date of December 21, 2012. (Nasa)"

Or as fellow writer BE of this parish likes to remind me, a penchant for predicting 9 of the last 3 recessions.

It is indeed still possible, indeed likely, that Brexit will have significant long-term downsides for the UK in some areas. But the upsides in my view are likely to out-weight these considerably.

What is not for debate anymore is the depth of the lies of Project Fear. And, better still, the good learning of the populace, especially of those who voted remain on the back of Project Fear, that the political class is a bunch of lying shysters.

Indeed, despite the hand-wringing, the metropolitan elite have made it far harder to make future cases on the basis of nanny knows best or "trust me." I understand too myself more clearly why the Scots Nats are here to stay and Labour won't be coming back in Scotland - Project Fear (although more justifiable in Scotland) is pressing a nuclear button politically. The damage of the lies cannot be undone for a generation or two.

Which, finally makes me realise that one George Osborne, still moving around Westminster has become a true Blairite, believing his own spin, hoping to make a come back when his lies are proved right after all.

So, Farewell Brad Pitt

Horror! Black crepe around Schloss Drew as Mrs D can no longer claim Brad Pitt on the family tree

Perhaps in square brackets?


Tuesday 20 September 2016

What Happens When You Live To 98

Everyone forgets you, that's what - even if you had a bit of a name in your time.

Also on the noticeboard at the weekend was this sad offering:

(I feel they might have spared her the tack through the skull.)  I hadn't heard she'd died, and so rushed back to find an obituary or three.  But there were none to be had from google this side of the Times paywall.

So who was Jean Austin?  A fairly well-known philosophy don: OK, second-rate, and (if we're being honest) trading a bit off the name of her illustrious husband, J.L.Austin; Then again, he's all-but-forgotten, too - and he was a titan in his day.

It was said of Jean that in one epic year she got a First, married John, and had twins.   Otherwise, she plugged a variety of the post-Wittgenstein 'ordinary language philosophy' which helped elevate Oxford's standing to pre-eminence in the 50's and 60's, before US linguists and logicians started to become a dominant force in analytic philosophy.

John Austin was a phenomenon, even if thoroughly out of fashion today.  In his day he was up there with Strawson, Ryle and Ayer, with a distinct brand of his own, summed up in wittily-titled books like Sense and Sensibilia (Austin ... geddit?).  All preceded by a deeply impressive wartime career in intelligence.   Just as Cambridge specialised in traitors in the mid 1900's, as Mr R said in comments yesterday, Oxford has been quite the other way around.
Austin had been recruited to set up, and ended up heading, the "order of battle" section of what became SHAEF (the Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force) under Eisenhower. The section was responsible for collecting and analysing information from a variety of sources, including the top-secret Enigma at Bletchley Park, but also through the developing art of aerial reconnaissance (which later became satellite imaging) and human intelligence from the resistance across Europe, in support of the war effort generally and to prepare for the D-Day landing. It is said that when the German army surrendered at Frankfurt, Austin was the only person amongst the Allies who knew where all of the German army was actually located
That passage is from an interesting philosophical book review of earlier this year, which goes on to look at Austin in the Ordinary Language Philosophy movement - and draws on analogies between linguistic reasoning and military intelligence.  For anyone even slightly interested, that is!  You can readily guess that I am.  (And if you are, you can even check out the 'philosophy' tag below ...)


Monday 19 September 2016

Preparing for the Worst

Back at Oxford this weekend, to be greeted with ...

Well, I suppose there's a Duty of Care, but - really?

At dinner I sat *this* close to Chris Patten.  Now, he really was in danger ...


Saturday 17 September 2016

Weekend Challenge: Name Your New Discovery

Here's a great story from the Graun that confirms several aspects of my outlook on life, of which more below.  
An inhaler that protects the lungs against air pollution has been developed by scientists and could help the many millions of people affected by toxic air to avoid its worst effects. The inhaler delivers a molecule, first found in bacteria in the Egyptian desert, which stabilises water on the surface of the lung cells to form a protective layer. It is expected to be available as an inexpensive, over-the-counter product...based on a molecule called ectoine, discovered in the 1980s in a desert bacterium which uses the compound to conserve water in 60C heat. “It is quite an inert molecule that does one main thing, which is bind water, which stabilises cell membrane tissues against physical or chemical damage ... It supports the natural barrier.” When inhaled, this helps prevent the damage caused by air pollution particles that can lead to asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer ... Ectoine does not interact with cell receptors, so it is classed as a medical device rather than a drug. This means large clinical trials are not required for official approval ... “It could potentially do so much more. It is actually quite exciting and there is clearly a lot more to come from this story.”
Neat, eh?  And echoes of penicillin: discovered decades before anyone figures out how to do something useful with it.  There's something wonderfully random about when discoveries are made and, in parallel, when actual inventions are perfected and realised.  It certainly doesn't always happen in a logical sequence of  search - discovery - deliberation - application - invention - product, as naive accounts sometimes suggest.  (The actual, functioning steam engine disproved the 'science' of the time.)  I always think television was an invention rather ahead of its time.  Then again, there are things that should have been invented already ... 

I reckon this marvellous ectoine thingy / discovery / application illustrates a number of maxims that I carry around with me:
  • there's always more stuff out there than anyone realises; ('if in doubt, go short')
  • technology solves problems (to give another example: geo-engineering is a whole lot better for tackling GW than banning travel or electricity or keeping warm in winter);
  • the next generation always has more resources than its forefathers; (which is not the same as life necessarily getting better - our perennial C@W debate)
  • there are sometimes step-change improvements that completely transform a situation - progress doesn't move in straight lines, it behaves more like the long-jump record (see also the 'phoenix phenomenon');
  • the latency period for effectively harnessing something new can be surprisingly long (and I don't think we've done much more than scratch the surface as regards microprocessors / digitisation / www etc)  
So.  Weekend challenge - what urgently needs discovering / inventing?  My candidates:
  • synthetic blood - this is so obvious and so slow in coming: I can scarcely believe it still hasn't happened
  • corbynite, a mysterious substance that will finally account for the folly of socialism, in every sense of 'account for'
Your carefully devised inventions, dear readers ..?


Friday 16 September 2016

Hinkley: Summer Finished, Winter Starts Here

Returning home from a very damp Paris to an equally damp London to read all about Hinkley: what a ridiculous state of affairs.  Is there anything to add?

I have seen a couple of half-hearted attempts to praise May for this craven decision.  Nick Butler (*spits*) in the FT gives her a convoluted, obsequious and yet condescending grammar-school mark - “VG 8½ out of 10. A good start to the term. Keep it up”.

And an un-named Chinese official tells China Daily (hoho!): "May has managed a good deal – she has managed to satisfy her domestic critics, satisfy her own cautious nature, and keep the Chinese on side". 

Well there's a thing.

Except here's one domestic critic who ain't satisfied.  Obviously we are never going to see the full text of the contract & related agreements, but (as with Cameron's lame Brexit 'negotiation') with the right creative approach there was a lot that could have been done - but not in seven weeks of cloistered, introspective worrying.

She really is no sort of negotiator, is she?  As well as being thick.


Wednesday 14 September 2016

Will anything, ever, make Nick Drew Vote UKIP?

OK, so UKIP are not in a very good state at the moment. As I wrote here a week or two ago, they are desperately in need of not just a new leader but a new brand and purpose too.

So it is no very auspicious to be cheering for them.

However, according to ITV, Hinkley is going ahead.

Clearly, PM May got a good hiding in Beijing and also by the French, being told all sorts of horrors if we did not commit - i.e. no investment and BREXIT impasse respectively.

But, it is , quite clearly lunacy, the most expensive white elephant since the NHS single IT system was conceived, in fact it will be worse.

All as renewables and battery storage, not to mention Fracking, have completely overtaken the need for nuclear power in its current form.

Let's face it, looking across at Flamanville we know the project does not even work and the technology is still unproven.

Despite all that PM May is going to wave it through. So, to our own Mr. Drew, how does that sit with you!

Tuesday 13 September 2016

is Hillary all better now?

Yesterday the global markets lost nearly 2% on fears that the US candidate Hillary Clinton had stumbled and was a bit ill.

Today the indexes have recovered.

It must have been a very nice get well soon card.

I do wonder about the autumn in the markets this year though, the ultra-low volatility has gone on most of this year at an unprecedented can't last. Will it end with a bang?

Sunday 11 September 2016

Fat & Lazy? Fox May Be Right

I have very little time for Liam Fox ("by their acolytes shall ye know them") but even a stopped clock can be fleetingly right, and this time I think he has a point.
Britain is "too lazy and too fat" with businessmen preferring "golf on a Friday afternoon" to trying to boost the country's prosperity, Liam Fox has said.
My early business experiences were in oil companies, which are no paragons, but haven't been brought up to believe the world owes them a living.  So it came as a shock, when I started doing business with the big heavy industrials in the north-east and north-west, to find them operating under the guiding principle: "why do a hard day's work when you can go lobbying instead?"

Seeing as it is now defunct - hardly a coincidence - I can finger ICI as the worst I encountered.  Any time they could bend the ear of the man from the government they would be letting it be understood how many jobs were for the axe if this or the other little tax-break, blind-eye treatment or other featherbedding wasn't continued.  Sometimes they'd even invent a new kind of 'special case' for favourable consideration.  When the man from the HSE or the Alkali Inspectorate etc came calling (and by heaven, they had good enough reason to poke their noses in: what went up the stack of ICI's old Wilton power station was outrageous) they'd get the same story: a gentle cough and "5,000 jobs" would be mentioned; and he'd go away sadder and wiser.

My firm was new on the patch.  When we had an environmental problem we quickly hatched a solution, but received a delegation from the local worthies.  If folks were to start fixing problems, they said - well, where would it all end?

This is only part of the story, of course, because Britain has many business success-stories of which we may rightly be proud.  But those that Fox is fingering need to shape up.


PS, I see Fraser Nelson has even more to say on the subject in the Speccie 

Friday 9 September 2016

Grammar Schools - why now?

It is weird that Prime Minister May has kicked off with Grammar schools as her first non-Brexit policy.

Hinkley and Heathrow are there (although both very hard).

Education has been slowly improving and there is already as dispute with the Doctors so winding up teachers is going to double trouble.

And for what? Grammar certainly helps a few but it also causes problems too as the other schools are filled with lower attainment kids. What about streaming in schools as a non-selective way of doing it?

Grammars' are not in the Manifesto from the last election, so the House of Lords will vote it down anyway.

It must be something she has held dear to her for life which she now wants to offer to all; a crusade if you like. Sadly it comes too with a notion of 100% religious schools which I am dead against as these are divisive to the country and we have enough religion as it is, particularly as we will have hard line Muslim schools now allowed - just what the Country needs.

I guess it will be wildly popular mind, so perhaps that is the simple answer after all.

Thursday 8 September 2016

Getting Out onto the Shop Floor

Mr Q's post yesterday on the travails of Sports Direct, and Jan's comment on companies "where the top brass never really know what's going on beneath them" strike a chord.

The issue of management never visiting the shop-floor is a mystery to me - the preserve of lazy gits, however sharp they may be on some aspects of the business.  My father was in marketing for a multi-national manufacturer: head office through-and-through, but he always insisted on his sales force becoming familiar with the widely-flung production sites - which he himself visited frequently - and I was brought up to believe this was the obvious thing to do.  Just an extension of an officer's duty, army style, which both he and I were in our times: really basic stuff.  But done in the right spirit, it's no chore.  It's actually 100% self-interested!  - an education and a boon to all concerned.  As perhaps Mr Ashley now recognizes.

I was always head-office, too, in various energy co's, and practised the same philosophy, sometimes to the amazement of my nicely-dressed, London-bound staff who had sort-of viewed the plant as dirty and noisy and, well, beneath their dignity but actually it is amazing [see this little tale - who couldn't be impressed by that sort of kit?], as they rapidly discovered.  Getting to grips with it in the flesh  -  the steel'n'concrete, and the operatives & stroppy plant management  -  paid massive dividends.

[Not least  -  when I was with oil companies  -  the trips out to the North Sea platforms (in the grand days before Piper Alpha put paid to non-essential trips offshore), which were often a serious adventure; and all came my way because I took the ops side seriously, even if it was technically 'none of my business'.]

The denizens of the factory floor don't like 'inspections' from on high, or pure dilettante head-office tourism.  But take a genuine interest, and they are only too keen to (a) show off what they've got & what they can do, and (b) spill the gen.  Who wouldn't want to be given that kind of first-hand low-down?

Then when the chips are down and the custard has hit the fan, you can just pick up the phone and it's old friends just sorting things out together (the occasional crate of whisky often helps, too).  Nothing but contempt for 'management' who don't know what's oop at 'mill.


Tuesday 6 September 2016

UnSporting Direct

I once worked for Sports Direct. But by accident. I was a senior manager in another clothing company that had got into trouble. Mr Ashley knew the owners and made them an ungenerous deal that they eventually accepted. 
He took over the chain. Took the leases of the best ones that were then made into Sports Direct stores, and there was deal where the rest went back to the original owners. 
But he kept the branded labels. Which is what he really wanted all along. All in all, a good bit of business on his part.
The SD team thought very, very little of us. They were dismissive of everything. From warehousing to distribution to employment. And, mostly, with good cause. Because whatever else Sports Direct may be, it is a slick operation. Very organised. Very focused. Very well run.
They had turnaround times half of ours. Superior inventory systems and logistics. They had and have plenty of resources and plenty of cash. According to the board of the company I worked for Mike Ashley was one of the nicest guys you could ever meet. And they said that about him in a very genuine way. They liked him.

I only worked with them for about a year. And mostly indirectly. Just helping out with the transfers of sites and stocks etc. But, in my opinion, I'd say they were the lousiest company I've ever worked for. 
Not because they were ungenerous. My company was ungenerous.  Not because they were tough, which they were. Most retail companies are tough. But because they were a nasty company.
An unpleasant bunch. Coming from the top was a terrible attitude of my way/high way.
All the time about all things. And with that winners arrogance too A slightly bullying undercurrent. Something that often occurs if the top tier is of an uncompromising, do it or you're out attitude. No compassion. No compromise. No choice.
 I suspected, that this came from the tier of management just below the leader. The people who report to the boss. And know what he likes to hear and doesn't like to hear. What he wants done and what he doesn't want to occur. And those people translated the wishes that eventually caused the rather ugly attitude to workers that is being discussed in the media now.

I would not be in the least surprised if Ashley genuinely didn't know of much of what has been revealed. Its a common occurrence in a company with a powerful boss. A dictatorship mentality eventually forms. The power below the throne fears rivals and needs to keep itself popular and secure. The best way is to hit targets, lower costs, increase profits and eliminate problems.

There was a report about Tesco{might not have been them, but I think it was. let's say it was}  a long while back. It emerged that the night shelf stacking staff were not permitted to talk to each other. Just a 10 minute break to have a coffee and a pee. 
This shocked Tesco, who, despite their 1990's greedy-grabby reputation, are generally well thought of by their employees. It was just a manager misunderstanding and seeking to improve performance. Other managers had heard about the results and copied the idea. And it spread. It was never Tesco policy that people be silent. And they ended it as soon as they were aware.

Sports Direct is a bit of a bogey company at the moment.  Zero hour contracts mainly the reason. SD have announced they will end them for their directly employed people and put them on a 12 hour contract. That's 18,000 workers off of zero hour contracts.

Still sounds bad. But it is a big change. A lot more rights with a part-time contract. Especially holiday pay. And, these people are working what amounts to full time anyway. The contract is zero. The actual hours are more like 30 to 40. Some 70% of all UK zero hour contact workers surveyed said they had as many hours as they wanted. Only 16% wanted more. And among those 16% will be a high percentage who the employer feels aren't up to it. So they are standby workers. With their phone numbers locked away in the Break Glass In Emergency cabinet.
Even the Unite rep on the TV, as he complained about working there never knowing how many hours a week he could plan for, said he had been there for three years, working 40 hours a week!
Zero hour contracts are a mechanism to get around the very onerous costs of employment, especially hiring and firing and redundancy. Zero hours followed the minimum wage legislation as the Government was well aware.

It isn't Sport's Direct fault they had tens of thousands of workers on these contracts. It is the fault of government. The government, Tory and Labour, should long, long ago have insisted that zero hour contracts were unlawful. Or could only exist short term. Or the rights were the same as employed.
Instead, they did very little indeed. 
Mr Ashley did well to control himself at the select committee. he must have been very tempted when asked if he thought zero hours were appalling, to reply it was not up to him to comment on the government's employment laws. and when question what was he going to do about it, he might have replied "what are YOU going to do about it?"
Sports Direct must have worked out they will probably benefit from having a more secure contracts system. Costs go up. but so does loyalty. Its far easier to retain people on a contract, even for 4 hours, than it is on a zero.

However, it IS the fault of Sports Direct that they let other aspects of their employment become so bad. 
It is the fault of SD that they never felt the need to address their employment practices properly until a critical situation, minimum wage not being paid, occurred. And it occurred through error, not malice. Management are salaried and are expected to stay behind and work late or deal with a problem. Sometimes they simply expected their wage employees to do the same.

Sports direct is a very big firm and will manage these changes well. it will probably in the long run, be strengthened by them. The unwelcome glare of the media spotlight will make it a little more worker friendly in the future.

And, it is well worth pointing out, that the original company that I worked for, a much nicer company to work for, which was taken over by Sports Direct, and then split off  from them again, went bankrupt.
It was bought out of administration by the original owners, and flailed about for another few years before going bust a final time and disappearing forever with the loss of 1,000 jobs.

Many of those 1,000 odd workers would have preferred their same job on a zero hour contact, to redundancy on a guaranteed 40 hour one.

Buyer's Market - Get Stuck In

Open those valves
There is a pronounced and timely surplus of natural gas right now, with no obvious end in sight.  With even Gazprom having run up the white flag on oil-price indexation, now is an excellent time for the utilities to be buying.

Centrica, a company of mixed virtues (check the tag for past examples) but always exceptionally shrewd in its purchasing - of assets as well as commodities - has just taken the opportunity to back up the truck to Qatar for a big contract roll-over, which is intelligent.  They'd already done the same with Gazprom last year.

Interestingly, for the first time in years gas-fired power plants are back in-the-money (hence all the big coal-plant closures this year).  It's not so surprising in the UK with our 'carbon price floor' (a tax devised by Osborne) which boosts gas at the expense of coal.  What's more surprising is that there is a small window of gas being in-the-money in Germany, where they still have only the perennially depressed Emissions Trading Scheme carbon price to contend with.  That really is somewhat unexpected, and probably won't last for long into the coming winter as gas prices rise, both seasonally and with the time-lagged effect of the upward nudge to oil prices since January (Germany still buying a bunch of gas at oil indexation).

This is real energy business, and to hell with Hinkley and the EU 'Energy Union'!


Monday 5 September 2016

What about me!

Mr Nelson not living up to his auspicious name
It is the call of the Remoaners everywhere.

This  time it is Lloyd's of London at it, or rather the Remain chief executive, John Nelson.

Apparently with no passporting for Financial Services, Lloyds will have to leave. Of course, he can't say where just yet as there is not anywhere for it to go. Lloyd's after all was invented in the Uk and has been here for century after century.

But the Japanese have whined a bit so that is that, all bets are off and we have to leave. Clever lawyers are telling them it is passporting or nothing.

Really, a thought comes to me, if the Government has to change when Brexit is voted for, should companies not also think of changing for the benefit of the Country too - especially ones led by UK Brexit hating CEO's who want nothing but failure for the UK?

I guess on balance we cannot go that far, but this is a great example of the sand in the mill we will see from remoaners for the next few years to come.

Friday 2 September 2016

New UKIP required but no one going for it in the leadership election

It is hard to look away from a sickening car crash, as we all know, but Labour's woes have dominated the summer silly season with their own ludicrous gaiety.

However, and more importantly too if Corbyn does win, is what is happening with UKIP.

If Labour are to meet their deserved sticky end, then an alternate party is required in the electoral system. For nationalistic reasons the SNP won't stand, if they did Labour would be in big trouble.

UKIP are also having a leadership election, with Diane James a strong favourite. Sadly, her prospectus is wafer thin and full of sound bites. Cleary she is thinks this will get her over the line without having made and Clegg-like commitments that will come back to bite her late.

But, but, but,

Politicians above all must take the world as it comes, not as they would like it to be.  Brexit is done, the main purpose of UKIP nearly complete. As such, the party needs to move on and find a new focus.

Luckily for them, Labour has gone cuckoo at the same time, allowing an opening. There are votes for a fiscally liberal and socially conservative party to be had, a party that stands up for the people and against oligopoly in either private or state sector. A party proud of the UK, using that energy to build the future outside of the UK.

This party cannot be called UKIP or branded UKIP. It need not focus solely on immigration, it can build instead on Grammar school proposals and developing the health service, whilst maintaing the military and reducing foreign aid. Not reducing corporate taxes and instead reducing EU inspired VAT.

Plenty of room, just needs a new logo, colour and direction to be set.

Of course, I have a sneaky feeling if UKIP won't do it, then their ex-leader may do it anyway. And without it, a party of the past has no chance when the Tories come to steal your mantra, just ask the Liberal Democrats.