Wednesday, 26 March 2014

You can always get what you want

Yeah, economics, banking sector shenannigans, go figure - but bloody hell, lets deal with some reality here for a mo  which is this - Bobby Gillespie can't sing for toffee, has an immense Rolling Stone's fetish going on and yet Primal Scream have had a longer run of half decent to very good to excellent albums than the Rolling Stones ever managed. Just saying *.

* No seriously, even if you're being generous and include Goats Head Soup, that's like 1964 to 1973 i.e. 10 years tops whereas with Primal Scream you're talking 1991 for Screamadelica,  then 2013 for More Light i.e. decades more than the Rolling Stones. And yet  the fecker really can't sing for toffee????!!!!!!!!!

Sunday, 23 March 2014



= Trendy boy

The thing that's interesting about the latest male look is the extent to which its composed of uber-masculine cliches; in a post-industrial society dominated by service jobs that have male strength is an irrelevance, to be trendy and attractive is to reassert the "butch".

As with any fashion, as it percolates down from the hip to the office worker to the point where you're almost disappointed the blerk serving you premium priced American craft lagers doesn't have a hairy face, it's well on its way to becoming a cliche, I mean heck if I'm aware of it, it already is.

What's different here though is how it's ready made for social media. Haircut'n'product aside, tattoos'n'beards offer fantastic scope to render being trendy a personal achievement with Facebook, instagram, tumblr etc., stages on which to present each new tattoo endured and every inch of facial hair grown as somehow meaningful accomplishments; this is more than just looking the part on a Saturday night, this is trendy being presented as an ongoing commitment.
What's also noticeable is how it rejects notions of the clean cut; in an era of mass graduation and declining social mobility and job prospects, it constitutes a cult of the self and the self-absorbed to be sure, but also a middle finger towards traditional lower middle class/respectable working class notions of how being suited, booted and clean shaven is the way to get on. Is this fashion as critique? Yes, but only in a wholly apathetic sense that says more about gender insecurity and dumb notions of gender. Rather, as with the "shopping riots", it's another example of how the mass response to the damage inflicted on us all by an increasingly abusive rentier class is to focus purely on the self and self-gratification.

Friday, 21 March 2014

News meh

The news is reported via tropes; predictable assemblages of assumptions, notions, images and characters that define what the subject is, what related events mean and what is (and isn’t) judged meaningful - i.e. newsworthy – and relevant.

Here’s an example; “casino banking” - cue video of a big office filled with 20 to 40 something men sat in front of multiple computer screens staring at numbers, cut to canary wharf office blocks, some reportage about bonuses complete with masterbatory images of luxery goods finished with some chat about risk peppered with acronyms you don’t understand.

Or try “car manufacturing” – cut to the junior minister for widget exports being very serious about something whilst stood on a pavement outside an office. Now change to a photo of a production line on the left hand side with some animated graphs swiggling on the right before introducing some vox pop interviews with ordinary blerks walking out of a factory. Is the news good or bad? Who knows because what’s next is a business correspondent stuck in front of a graph to say something terribly portentous in a serious voice.

What’s fascinating isn’t the extent to which the above bunch of bollocks is still so resolutely in place despite the internet (and The Day Today), rather it’s the extent to which all those producing it seem unaware as to why.

The usual starting point here is another trope, this one being “why are newspapers still so influential despite the downturn in their circulation and the rise of alternative media?”. Except this time, no, this isn’t a cue for yet another predictable discussion, the reason being the mainstream media can best be characterised as an aggressive daisy chain that periodically stops for a circle jerk before reverting to type. Here’s why.

Newspaper and TV journalists move between the two media on a regular basis. Newspaper and TV journalists pay attention to the media they currently and used to work in. Newspaper and TV journalists accord some value to what they do.

Politicians (which can include newspaper and TV journalists) read the papers and watch the telly. These are things they know and understand. These are also the things newspaper and TV journalists know. D’ya see the origins of my daisy chain and circle jerk references now? Good.

This is a bad thing; there is an effectively institutionalized means of transmitting the prejudices – or tropes - of one group to the other and in the process excluding outsiders however significant what they’re saying might actually be – like, are you a TV journalist? No, Newspaper? No. Politician? No. Then fuck off.

Or to give a practical example, Allister Heath is a right wing fool *, but he’s also a newspaper editor; cue the BBC  regularly getting him on the telly for late night adult debates and actually describing him as a serious thinker. By contrast, yer man Simon Wren-Lewis (better described as Britain’s terribly, terribly polite and Oxbridge Paul Krugman) simply blogs. Simon ain’t on the BBC much, which is a pity cos he’s a damn sight more credible than Allister the fool.

We lose out because of this media daisy chain (which is essentially immune to circulation numbers i.e. that’s not the fricking issue). We lose out because people who know what they are talking about are ignored in favour of people who are known (by the right people) and who buy into the existing tropes as to what is news. Just saying **

* in the interest of (spurious) objectivity, Will Hutton is marginally less dumb, but still an equivalent leftie muppet.
** -  read Antonio Gramsci on hegemony as well is all I'm saying.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

2014 Budget preview: It’s all gone a bit Mitt

Some budget predictions – in the last budget George Osborne rightly slagged off Gordon Brown for selling off wodges off UK gold reserves at pretty much exactly the wrong time. Given the Post Office sell-off fiasco he’s unlikely to make this joke again.

There will be very little, if anything, said about any concrete let alone meaningful changes to corporation tax that will address the fact multinationals, particularly US multinationals hoover money out of Britain whilst paying no and/or piddly amounts of tax. That some of these companies – notably Amazon – are utterly ghastly as employers and claim more in subsidies than they pay in tax will definitely get ignored as will the fact they need access to British markets more than Britain needs them. That their tax dodging gives them a competitive advantage over local businesses that do pay tax will similarly be ignored.

There will be some twaddle about some new allowances for businesses that invest in new toasters/rate relief for businesses setting up 16.8 miles outside of Swansea or what not with this trumpeted as being some kind of economic development strategy. In due course various accountancy firms will work out how to use these new arrangements as tax shelters for wealthy clients probably including Gary Barlow.

Right now though the biggie appears to be raising the tax allowance to 10 grand; this is a very bad thing to do. Paying tax is a necessary - but also socially and politically important-  “evil”. Taxes are how we contribute to the state and the greater good; they’re a marker of citizenship and probably the single largest entry ticket to British society we have. So deliberately raising the tax threshold is also deliberately excluding people from these things.

This matters. If you want an example as to why think of Mitt Romney’s 47% gaffe. Yes he was factually incorrect and yes his moralising was disgusting, and yet his bile still had some purchase with a reasonably big chunk of the American electorate. Now think of Britain where we have our very own Taxpayers Alliance and are routinely told how the top X% of earners pay Y% of all income tax i.e. paying (income) tax confers both moral authority and a political voice. Excluding people from income tax excludes them from both these things, which I reckon is a dangerous thing to do right now.

Rather, to help lower earners, keep the allowance as it is whilst increasing work related benefits and/or raise the minimum wage, basically anything else really because in an era of ongoing public spending cuts and benefit reforms,  any opposition to future cuts are likely to be responded to in a Mitt Romney style, just in an upper class English rather than a Middle-American accent*.

* And yes everyone also pays VAT, its just indirect taxation doesn’t have the same purchase or “feel” (hence the pies who make the top X% pay Y% of all taxes argument tend to ignore the fact average earners pay a higher % of their incomes in direct and indirect taxes than the highest earners).

P.S. Woo hoo the actual budget is out. So if I was on a poverty wage (60% of average) of £15,900 p.a. I'd be £11 better off a month. £12 if I was on £26,500 p.a. i.e. average and £15 if I was on £50,000. Now in % terms the lower earner is better off, except we don't live in a world of percentages (can I have  42% of that t-shirt please etc.,). Plus the lower your income the bigger the difference even a small gain makes to your well-being and living standards. This is not news, what is is that the changes to the income tax bands make clear who the priority is of the current government - more for the well off, less for the poor.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Scottish independence vs Devo-max

I reckon there are at least two big problems with Devo-max or the devolution of more powers as an option. One, the shower of shite sat in Holyrood and two, it would leave the chip on the Scottish shoulder firmly in place.

Re: One – Devo-max would simply give more power to the existing MSPs. There would be no gradual transformation of Scottish politics wherein Holyrood became an end in itself as opposed to the ex-councillors' gravy train it currently is. Plus, the ongoing tension between what UK level political parties want and what their Scottish offshoots do would remain. To be fair this second point is primarily a Labour party issue given what the Tories do here is largely irrelevant as are the Greens and as for the SNP, well the clue’s in the title.

Re: Two – Devo-max would leave the blame England mentality in place, something both supporters and opponents of devolution have been known to buy into like perpetual adolescents.

The two problems are inextricably inter-linked; the key issues for a devolved government are getting and spending, by which I mean periodically negotiating (UK) central government funding levels, then apportioning said monies out across the various devolved areas of responsibilities.

And just as every council blames central government funding cuts whenever it cuts services, so a devolved Scottish parliament can blame Westminster when it fails to get what it wants out of negotiations or just for the heck of it.

What a devolved Scottish politics, as with any adolescent, doesn’t do is take full responsibility for the consequences of its actions. Remember, Holyrood already had the power to vary income tax, just not the self-confidence or political will to do so.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

A British banking ponder

A thing that often confuses me, usually during formal conversations with terribly intelligent and important economists, is the extent to which context gets forgotten about. By this I mean stuff like the fact that interest rates have been negative, after taking inflation into account, for almost 6 years now, and very negative since base rate was cut to the 300 year low of 0.5% in March 2009. So in contrast to what the terribly dim economist Andrew Sentence said in 2009, things got and remain pretty ghastly – because if they weren’t base rate would be more than 0.5%!

Another bit of context that tends to get forgotten about is the major structural changes seen across British banking. For retail customers, the high street looks very different now that the Bradford and Bingley, Alliance and Leicester, the Brittania, Northern Rock, Bank of Scotland, the Halifax, the Dunfermline and what no have variously failed and/or been taken over. Online there are no more Icelandic banks (remember them?) offering enticingly high savings rates or the subsiduaries of US investment banks making mad mental mortgage offers.

The situation is pretty similar for SME/commercial banking customers, particularly those minded to dabble in commercial property. Previously, there would always, it seems, have been an Orish bank or former building society ready to throw money at anything involving British bricks and mortar (and caravans). Now? None.

Moreover, its not just the number of banks/building societies willing to lend (or borrow) that’s changed, the terms those still standing offer are a lot less “generous”. You could argue this is due to a reduction in competition, however,  I don’t think this is necessarily the case. Many of the banks that left after 2007 were relatively new entrants i.e. they did things few of the mainstream banks had ever been especially willing to do. Alongside them were a few established players hellbent on achieving  ridiculous growth targets that in turn drove them into increasingly dumb lending. So arguably instead what happened is that banking lost its lunatic fringe.

Except all of the above is so far removed from the ring fence investment banking tosh that constitutes the bulk of the political and regulatory response, it keeps getting lost sight of. This is a shame because, well for starters, it flags up how monumentally awful financial regulation in Britain was and how culpable the regulators were (alongside all the CEOs and their direct reports at the failed banks).

It also provides some context for the tosh politicians come out with e.g. banks need to lend more – which ones, the ones that failed due to not having a clue how to lend in the first place or the ones that did and are unwilling to do high LTV mortgages off their own back?

And then there are the wonderful rating agencies who rate the surviving banks using a methodology that appears to involve plucking out whatever they last had lodged up their jacksies, wiping it down, then committing it to PDF.

More generally though, there seems to me to be broader questions, besides those of justice and fairness, about what happened and what it means that aren’t getting asked. To give just one example, many of the failed banks had distinct local identities, you know Bradford, Dunfermline, Leicester etc., what does their loss mean to those locales? I’ve no got a scoob, but it still strikes me as being worth a ponder.

Friday, 14 March 2014

The BBC is a (fiscal) drag

As someone aware of the nastiness that is a lot of American telly and as a BBC radio podcast addict, I normally reckon the licence fee is well worth it mate, well worth it. Until you read shite like the following in the build up to "debates" about the next budget:

"The coalition government has raised the threshold at which people start to pay tax to £10,000 but the threshold for the higher rate has increased by less than inflation, meaning more taxpayers fall into the 40p band."

And you think hang on a mo, haven't average wages been rising slower than inflation for years now, like years with that in itself having become a relatively high profile story? Hmmm, am I paying for independent, quality journalism or is the BBC's pursuit of a Pravda-like status  (in its Soviet heyday) when it comes to everything economic ever going to end? And if not, why in feck should I pay for that?

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Scottish Independence: The Vision thing

Inspired by a lovely Radio 4 "Analysis" programme on the Scottish independence debate I had a read of the pro-union Better Togther argument and was shocked to discover how profoundly cack it is. The Radio 4 programme asked the question what positive vision of the union is being presented to sustain Scotland’s continued membership of the United Kingdom. The answer? No much.

Here is the “Better Together” vision:

- We’re stronger as part of the UK, you know, “stronger”
- The UK is better placed than a separate Scotland or England to compete in the global economy
- As part of the UK we have real clout in the UN Security Council, NATO, the EU, AND we have Embassies around the world
- Lots of Scottish people live in England and lots of English people live in Scotland

(Then there’s the negative: “Times are really tough at home and really turbulent internationally. In the future Scotland's prosperity will be strengthened by keeping the British connection. We need more growth, more jobs, and more prosperity in Scotland. We don't need uncertainty, instability, and barriers for our businesses.”)

Now, I don’t know about you, but nothing in the above especially motivates or inspires me. For starters I’ve no idea what “stronger” means in this context. The economic (or prosperity) argument is interesting, except one of the factors encouraging independence is the way the economic, infrastructure and development policies pursued by successive UK governments have been disproportionately skewed towards London be it spending billions more building train lines into, out of, in and around the place or campaigning against EU restrictions on financial sector bonuses.

Then there’s international “clout” and what that’s actually meant in terms of the morally repugnant wars Scotland has been made a part of. Or there’s the billions wasted on a disproportionately large military budget give or take the rank hypocrisy currently on show with regards to Ukraine where – surprise, surprise – the fact Russian “oligarchs” buy London flats and financial products appears to have trumped any notion of a just foreign policy let alone one with “real clout”. Would an independent Scotland be any better? It couldn’t be any worse and there’s real scope to finally step away from the UK’s post imperial hangover and special relationship self-pleasuring.

As for people living here there and everywhere, so what? No pro-independence supporter is saying there would be any restrictions, just think about the voter eligibility requirements. Rather, it’s the anti-independence lot that’s continuing to threaten travel and labour market restrictions if Scotland has the audacity to vote in favour of a government that would actually take Scottish interests seriously.

Then there’s the basics “Better Together” just doesn’t seem capable of getting its head around. Like, Scotland’s political culture is different, OK? We barely vote Tory and voted the SNP into Holyrood when Labour was in power in the UK. Devolution accommodates this to an extent I guess, but when successive Westminster governments are so hell bent on unpicking the great UK institutions like the NHS and the Post Office that once actively made the UK united, then feck ‘em, Scottish independence is simply acknowledging this fact.

However, its not just that the “Better Together” arguments are in themselves cack -  which they are - it’s the pro-union lot’s complete lack of a compelling vision – give or take the chance for us all to wear Team GB swimming trunks -  that really strikes me.  Like the crux of their argument seems to be it might cost everyone c.£752.37 extra a year to live in an independent Scotland. Fine, I’ll pay up because by contrast and by definition independence offers Scotland both a transformative vision and an otherwise unobtainable opportunity to make this a better place.