Gideon’s bible

This week has seen the return of that annual ritual, the Budget.  I find the budget rather uninteresting, but also deeply annoying.  It strikes me that if something needs adjusting in the economy it should be done, and if it doesn’t then it shouldn’t – but instead we seem to save up a whole series of unrelated tweaks and announce them all in one go once a year.

The Budget ends up being a strange admixture of changes driven by tradition and ideology.  So, it seems to be vitally important to fiddle with excise duties on an annual basis – and also usually a good plan to move tax thresholds and interfere with pensions.  Each Budget also offers an important opportunity for chancellors to make the tax system even more complicated – just in case there was a risk that someone actually understood it.

The Budget is also the chance to announce changes to income tax – usually to either raise or lower the rate for the very rich.  Lowering taxes for the very rich is unlikely to attract many votes (the über-rich are not terribly numerous, though very influential) so I assume is driven by ideology or with an eye to future party funding.  Raising taxes on the rich may be more of a vote winner, but perhaps is less conducive to future party funding (or lucrative consulting jobs for ministers when the political gravy train hits the buffers).  In either case, changes need a strong dose of ideology as no-one knows what tax rate would maximise tax revenues from the seriously rich – I believe there is some certainty (maybe a sigma or two) that the value lies between 30% and 75%, but nothing better than that.

The other platform provided by the Budget is to announce a combination of increased spending and/or cuts – though usually these have already been announced and are nowhere near as new as the Chancellor would have us believe.  I have a rather serious problem with announcements of either type, as they all seem to suffer from a common failure of understanding.  Chancellors of all political stripes seem to believe any problem can be solved either by throwing more money at it, or throwing less money at it.

If you throw more money at a problem, the money will certainly be used but usually with minimal impact on desired outcomes.  There is a form of financial Parkinson’s Law in action whereby costs expand to consume the money available.  The most powerful segments of any organisations being funded will take the lion’s share of the money and grow bigger and more powerful.  Sadly, power rarely lies where you want the money to be spent.

If you throw less money at a problem, despite what many think, organisations do not tackle waste and become more efficient.  Instead, the most powerful segments of the funded body will devote all their energies to protecting themselves and their empires and will instead ditch activities they consider to be peripheral.  Sadly, these peripheral activities are probably the very ones for which the bodies exist and which represent their most important outcomes for UK plc.

These last two paragraphs are true for organisations whether funded by public or private means – though, on the plus side, privately funded organisations may eventually go bust (unless prevented from doing so by the State, yes I am talking about the Banks).  I always feel that when my employers start eliminating biscuits from meetings (a meaningless cost-saving activity) it is time to seek employment elsewhere – and I assume that other savvy employees think similarly.  Cost cutting is, thus, an excellent way to weed-out the competent, go-getting portion of your employee-base while retaining the dead-weight.  I do wonder if something similar applies to nation states – and austerity is an excellent way to “fix” net migration by selectively disposing of the more economically-valuable portion of your economy whilst simultaneously encouraging the more sensible potential immigrant to seek another destination.  Are we deliberately turning the UK into the B Arc of Golgafrincham?  Well, we do seem to be turning into a service economy – though my phone does remain staunchly unsanitary.

Anyway, time to turn from Budgets in general to the most recent offering.  This is dear old George (née Gideon) Osborne’s fifth attempt at a budget, and despite all the evidence he does continue to believe that he has the common touch and knows what matters to we members of the lumpen proletariat.  After singeing his fingers with the pasty tax and static caravans, he has now turned his attention to beer and bingo.

As a sometime beer drinker, I did wonder what his headline measure would mean for me.  As a man, I am given a suggested weekly allowance of 28 units of alcohol – and if I choose to take all of this in the form of beer at a relatively modest 3 units per pint, I would find myself £4.85 richer every year.  I’m afraid, were I a woman, this boost would be a mere £3.64 and given my modest drinking habits (and foolish consumption of wine and spirits) I will be luck to clear an extra 50p.  Not quite the giveaway the newspaper headlines (both good and bad) suggested.

I must admit I have no interest in Bingo – I think that I blame it (quite incorrectly) for the destruction of so many cinemas (well, it tended to use old cinema buildings in my formative years, creating the unfortunate association).  I must admit I wasn’t even aware there was a bingo tax – but I suspect reducing it is not going to have a large financial effect on very many people.

Nevertheless, some in Mr Osborne’s own party seemed to think these two changes were the most important things to be announced in the budget.  Sadly, their crowing about this seems to have back-fired rather spectacularly.  I had always assumed that such measures were designed to provide a fig-leaf of good news behind which to hide the entire forest of bad news contained in the rest of the Budget.  If this was the good news, which seems to have gone down like a lead balloon, how bad must the rest of the Budget been?  I have seen some suggestions that new pensioners are to be encouraged to spend their pension pot on fast cars – rather than frittering it away on an income for their declining years.  I presume this is an attempt to defuse the pensions time-bomb via the medium of road traffic accidents – which is certainly a bold initiative and bound to be more fun than spending one’s lifetime savings on the cost of a nursing home or one way trip to Switzerland.  So, unless pensionable age continues to recede from me, I could be the proud possessor of a shiny red Ferrari in a mere 20 years time!  Not really a dream of mine, but I suppose someone has to prop up the Italian economy – and it would be churlish of me to try and live forever bleeding dry anything that remains of the State in 2038.

Where are you from?

Today’s title is a question I was asked earlier in the week, but to which I found I lack a good or ready answer.  I know where I was born and where I was brought up – but I don’t really feel I am “from” either of those.  This lack of belonging to my place of birth can be explained by my forced departure before I was even six months old.  I’m less sure where my lack of belonging to the location of my childhood originates – perhaps just prolonged absence?

I could – and did – list various of the places I’ve lived over the years since my body (though not my mind) reached adulthood.  However, this does not seem a terribly good answer to a perfectly banal question.  I am clearly from the UK, but this only works as an answer if the question is posed by Johnny Foreigner, so am I somehow rootless beyond my basic nationality?

The (relatively) recent house move had already led me to ponder the nature of home and where it lies.  For quite some time, I continued to view Cambridge as “home” – and I can still catch myself thinking in that way even now.  Still, since the arrival of the new sofa (the old one being too large to make the move), Southampton has been fairly securely established as “home”: hat location is surprisingly unimportant, despite what Paul Young would have you believe.  However, Southampton is not alone in holding this honour.  Cambridge is still “home”, particularly when I am there or I see it on the screen.  After an absence of 25 years, a couple of trips back to Oxford over the summer have made it clear that the city of dreaming spires is also still “home” – I suppose I did live there for three years (well, nearly half of three years – during term time – to be strictly accurate) but its continuing claim on me is a little surprising.  More surprising still is that Edinburgh also qualifies as “home” despite the fact that I have never lived there (or even owned so much as a deck chair there, let alone a settee) and only visited the city sporadically for the last 6 or 7 years – but I am quite familiar with the bus routes (or at least some of them).

I’m struggling to find any obvious common link between my various “homes”, which presumably means I must blame affect (or go the way of Dr Freud and blame my mother and/or a childhood trauma).

Do others have the same issue responding to the question “where are you from”?  Or, is it just me?

Anyways, the originator of this question was much clearer about where she was from as she cut my hair.  She hailed from Middlesborough, or more accurately Great Ayton, and so my list-based answer of places inhabited was sufficient to spark lively conversation.  We chatted about the joys of a night out in the ‘Borough on the lash and the beauty of the Cleveland Hills with particular reference to Roseberry Topping (a hill rather than a dessert) and the simple pleasure to be gained from a beer and steak sandwich following its evening ascent.  So, despite my failure to properly answer the question and the subsequent soul-searching, the interrogative device served its purpose admirably.  I suspect there is a lesson here for me to learn…

Fire and Ice

I have headed north in the hope of free education and prescriptions and, given my advanced years, to enjoy the free care we elderly receive in the more boreal portions of the UK.  Yes, dear reader, I am in Scotland spending a week in the Athens (or, at this time of year, Islington) of the North for the famous International and Fringe (or Bangs for our US readers) Festivals.

The weather has been mild and I have seen the sun (and quite a lot of rain – but less, I think, than home which is what matters!), but one does not generally visit Scotland to enjoy the sultry heat.  I was therefore puzzled to find at the Pleasance (one of the main Fringe venues) that all the beverages on offer were “extra cold” – the stout, cider and bitter were all branded as “extra cold” and the lager is always offered heavily chilled.

Why?

I can’t imagine that over-heating is such a huge problem in the Scottish climate that the serving of tepid, or merely cool, drinks should be so thoroughly interdicted.  I will admit that some of the venues can become quite toasty (not to say sweaty) when packed with punters, but there has been no need for salt tablets to be issued – and the offering of a few cold drinks within a wide range of beverages would be more than sufficient to cover any concerns.

Luckily, today I shall be amused at the Gilded Balloon (or that’s my plan – one I hope is shared by the comics whose work I shall be sampling) – which on past form, is willing to offer bitter that has neither been nitro-kegged nor chilled well beyond the point of potability.  So, clearly it can be done – let’s start a campaign to make drinking at the Pleasance more pleasant!

Yesterday, I also visited the Queen’s Hall (she wasn’t there) to enjoy Ravel, Chin and Schubert (or at least some of their chamber works).  This was a late morning session, but it still counted as classical music and so, as part of my plan to support the arts in these difficult times, I was required to partake of an over-priced pot of artisan ice cream in the interval.  I was offered – and tried – a flavour I had never encountered before – Scotch Bonnet ice cream.  A Scotch Bonnet – as well as a piece of millinery – is a particularly fiery strain of chilli pepper and so might be seen as an unusual partner for ice cream. However, the combination was a marvel – the wonderful admixture of fire and ice in a single mouthful was a delight (and made a baked alaska seem a very pedestrian offering).  I think chilli could usefully be added to other flavours of ice cream (not just the basic iced-cream flavour): I already like chilli-flavoured dark chocolate, so that would be an obvious option but I think it would also augment the experience when consuming strawberry, honey and ginger or vanilla ices.

I’m now also wondering if I should introduce chilli into my bakery – chilli icing (as well as a pleasing word-pairing) could definitely be a viable option.  Upon my return to Fish Towers, it will back down to the crypt for some experimentation..