Political Grindr

Yes, I am going to talk about the tendency of those in government to bang-on about their “mandate”.  The current government managed to obtain almost 37% of the vote (the same as in 2010, without a majority on that occasion) and so have – in common with many of their predecessors – been claiming a “mandate” to do whatever they want.  I’d note that this mandate covers only a quarter of the electorate – and many of these may only have chosen them tactically or as the least worst option – so hardly a ringing endorsement of the full contents of their manifesto (and any mad ideas they may have generated subsequently or were unwilling to reveal).  Talking of their manifesto, I wonder what fraction of 1% of the electorate actually read any of the manifestos, let alone that of the “winner”.  Even 25% of the electorate seems an over-estimate of the mandate, as many people who will be affected (for good or ill) by the current government were not eligible to vote.  I am thinking, in particular, of those yet to reach the age of 18 and who will have much longer to live with the consequences of this government’s actions than the over-65, who seem to have been the mainstay of their support.  I did find myself wondering when the last time was that a government had the support even of a majority of the electorate?

I fear this belief that the (probably grudging) support of a small minority of the populace is a mandate for each and every action they can think of (please note, no actual thought may have been involved) might help to explain the legislation mania that has afflicted governments since around 1980.  The production of new laws is one of the few growth industries that this country can claim, but sadly it adds little to GDP and even less to the well-being of the population.

Just a couple of weeks in, there have already been two glorious examples of this mania.  Firstly, the plan to legislate to remove most of the flexibility that the government possesses to manage the economy by effectively removing any chance to raise additional revenue.  Given that a bunch of spending areas have also been protected and we are planning to fritter away huge amounts of money on vanity projects, e.g. HS2, Trident, there seems a major risk of total economic collapse.  All it would need would be some event which lowers tax revenues by even a modest percentage, a referendum leading to departure from the EU might be an example, and I can foresee disaster looming for the UK (though luckily, one which would probably confined to these Isles rather than trashing the global financial system).  I fondly remember the fun of our brief dalliance with the ERM and expect “the markets” to view this idiotic idea as a similar challenge.

This very day, the government has announced plans to tackle soi-disant legal highs via legislation: nothing must stand in the way of the cloud of depression which has settled over much of the UK, engendered by ever deepening austerity.  Some government mouthpiece proudly claimed that this would deal with the issue “once-and-for-all” and, as we know, since being made illegal, heroin and cocaine have not been sighted and certainly have never caused a single problem in this country.  As previously noted here, I remain convinced that the government is taking cash from the drugs trade to keep it profitable – does anyone know if the legal high industry was a major contributor to Tory party funds?  Still, it is good to know that disaffected chemistry graduates, emerging from university to a life on the scrap heap, have a profitable avenue to use their “book smarts”.

I have two ideas that are somewhat cognate to this discussion and might be able to muster the 20% or so of support that is considered a ringing endorsement in these modern times.  Firstly, removing the vote from everyone over the age of 40 (thus disenfranchising myself at a stroke) – I have far more faith in the young, who have yet to have a chance to make a total mess of anything other than their own lives, than those of my generation, who have managed to make a much broader mess.  I like to imagine this would encourage longer-term thinking (if nothing else, the young seem to have lots of ideas as to what to do with their time, little of which seems to relate to generating bad ideas for new laws) – though might also lead to a Logan’s Run scenario for we old codgers.  Still, on the plus side, that would defuse the pensions time bomb rather nicely.

Secondly, the restriction of membership of the armed forces to people over the age of 40 only – which might reduce the desire to participate in foreign wars just to demonstrate our unrequited love for the US.  The more fatal interactions, which currently characterise war, might also be largely replaced by passive-aggression.  If nothing else, it should slow down the pace of war – with troops and their commanders alike keen on getting an early night.  It will also help to tackle the pensions time bomb!

I do realise that the combination of my two wizard wheezes could be a tad dangerous for those of my age, but when producing legislation there is clearly no need to consider the consequences of one’s actions, so I’m sure everything will be fine!

Excessively Abelian?

Those who know either me or this blog will foresee that this post will be about commuting.  In an Abelian group – named after Norwegian mathematician Niels Abel – all the elements commute.  Whilst I have known the name of Abel for 30 years, it was only this week reading Finding Moonshine by Marcus du Sautoy that I realised what a short and tragic life he led.  Compared to Abel, one W A Mozart Esq had a good innings – though, when it comes to the foundation of group theory, Galois wins in the dying young stakes at only 20 (in a duel).  In its early days, group theory was a pretty dangerous subject – though I believe is a rather safer choice today.

Those of a less mathematical bent (what were you thinking?) will be pleased to know that the educational portion of this post is now over and I shall revert to the more humdrum definition of commuting.  If I adhered to the principles of the late Lord Reith, I would now go on to inform and entertain – but we all know that isn’t going to happen.

I am lucky enough to work from home most of the time, and so rarely have to commute.  However, I have served my time as a commuter (and may yet be sentenced again) and so know the general form.  A large chunk of your life is consumed, in addition to that spent working, travelling to and from your place of employ.  This is normally spent on a packed train or stuck in traffic (or, if really lucky, some of both) – adding to the time-taken and general stress and unpleasantness of the whole exercise.  On a recent work-related excursion to the capital during the rush hour I found myself wondering how so many people have wound up in this situation.  I can’t imagine anyone wants to spend so much of their life commuting (though I used to find it a good opportunity to read and catch up on podcasts), yet as a society we doom so many to this fate.

The costs to the nation must be astronomical.  To start with we have the cost in time and money to the commuters, likely to be accompanied by a reduction in their productivity at work and utility to society as a whole.  All those journeys add to injuries and deaths in rail and road traffic accidents and the air pollution produced leads to many premature deaths and additional calls on the resources of the NHS each year.  As a country, the UK needs to maintain more and wider roads, plus parking capacity at the ends of the journey.  The railways need additional capacity in rolling stock, track and signalling just to service the rush hours.  The increased wear-and-tear also increases the costs of maintaining all this infrastructure.  And this is a far from exhaustive list of the costs (a slightly tired list at best).

How did we let this happen?  In slightly iffy weather – ¼” of snow perhaps – we are advised to avoid travelling unless absolutely necessary and the economy doesn’t seem to collapse (though retailers will use it as an excuse for any poor results for the next year or two).  Commuting must be taking a huge bite out of our GDP and can’t be doing much for people’s broader happiness.  I must assume that jobs tend to be concentrated where people either can’t afford to live or don’t want to live.  Sadly, one of the metrics which seems to be used to measure the success of a government seems to be how much more unaffordable they can make housing during their tenure. Despite an economic record that can most kindly be described as “patchy” (great if you’re a billionaire, less good if you’re disabled), the current chancellor has been very successful in creating a housing bubble.  I do fear that in the not very distant future, only Russian oligarchs, oil sheikhs and Hollywood stars will be able to afford to live in London (though will mostly leave their homes empty) adding still further commuting – or leading to the complete collapse of that city’s economy.  Perhaps a good metric would be the number of new jobs created, or better the sum product of jobs and salaries, outside of a major conurbation – or as a start, just outside Greater London.  Actually, the sum product of jobs and salaries either created (via their policies, or more commonly in their imagination) or destroyed by a government (directly in the case of the public sector, via their policies or in their opponent’s imagination otherwise) would be rather an interesting number.

I’m not entirely sure, in these days of electronic communication, why so many jobs have to be concentrated in a few conurbations.  In my experience of office life, people rarely speak to the person sitting next to them (preferring the passive-aggressiveness of email) let alone visit a colleague on another floor or worse trudge to a distant part of the city.  For a fraction of the cost of all the additional road and rail infrastructure we seem to need each year, I suspect every home, garden shed and cardboard box in the land could have state-of-the-art 3D video conferencing installed – though getting people to use it and actually talk to each other may be more of a challenge.  I’ll admit screens aren’t ideal, so people could actually go see their colleagues from time-to-time: once a fortnight, say (but not all of the same day, obviously).  Basically we could save travelling for when it is really needed or for the pursuit of fun and it might once again be a pleasure to journey by road or rail.

This would need some structural changes, I’ll admit – for a start, the whole basis of season tickets would need to be changed – but surely it has to be worth a go!   We will, however, have to overcome our societal obsession with house prices, but I can suggest tons (or tonnes for the metric among you) of more interesting topics for the middle-classes to discuss over dinner – why not start with a little group theory?

Banker rancour

When I were a lad, usury was still a mortal sin – OK, I’m not quite that old.  Actually, now I come to think about it, presumably usury is still a mortal sin: I’m not aware of a Newer Testament (Testament 3.0?) that shows God has changed His mind, despite John Calvin’s best attempts to lay the foundations for modern finance.  But, no, I’m not going to blame the Calvinists for the recession – though it would probably represent an original choice of destination for culpability.

Anyway, returning from consideration of such thorny theological issues, I was going to say that when I was a boy, banks were very dull institutions.  For a fee they would look after your money, and occasionally allow you to gain access to it (as long as you didn’t have a job).  They would also give you a cheque book and allow you to set-up standing orders for regular payments – and charged you whenever you used either facility.  Finally, if you could prove you didn’t need one and could charm the forbidding figure of your Bank Manager, then they would offer you a loan.  I think there were also Investment Banks, but they made very little (OK, no) impression on my infant self – they probably occurred less frequently in the sitcoms (or children’s TV) of the 1970s.

Then came deregulation: the Bank Manager vanished, loans were offered on a completely non-discriminatory basis (no longer was a lack of money or any expectation of being able to pay back the amount borrowed considered a barrier to lending) and no high street bank was complete without an investment bank of its own.  On the positive side, customers with jobs were now able to obtain access their own money – though this may have helped fuel the consumer boom, in a world where people could rarely access their money, saving was easy!

A cynic might wonder if the Banks, in their modern incarnation, provide any positive benefit to the economy at all, let alone to wider society.  In their brief moments of rest between trashing the world economy and mis-selling financial products to those that don’t need them (most recently, to the already beleaguered small business sector) they seem to be indulging in outright criminality: who gets to keep the £290million that Barclays were fined?  Should I be expecting a fiver in the post from Bob Diamond as my share?  In fact, it seems that if we are serious about reducing crime and the cost of crime, we should forget about placing more “bobbies on the beat” (though, to give the government their due, they do seem to have forgotten about this quite successfully already) and move to a plan for more “bobbies in the banks”.

The Banks don’t seem to contribute much to the economy through the direct payment of tax, though they do employ a fair few people and the more lowly paid probably can’t afford to indulge in sophisticated tax evasion and so probably do contribute something to funding the State.  Not only did the wretches wreck the economy, and then bleat that they were too big to fail and take massive financial bailouts from the States they had been so reluctant to contribute towards, but they established a bailout precedent now being exploited by troubled countries across the Eurozone.  Should I ever run into financial difficulties, it is clear that I need to ensure my debts are measured in the hundreds of billions of pounds: financial irresponsibility (or mere misfortune) leading to the owing of a few thousands leads to one joining the new undeserving poor with the concomitant lack of any State-funded safety net.

However, despite this relentless negatively take on its recent and well-reported activities, I remain pretty sure that a well-run banking sector is very important to the well-being of the economy.  Sadly, I couldn’t offer a single piece of evidence to support this opinion – despite the existence of wall-to-wall financial reporting for several years across a wide range of media outlets.  Consequently, I would like to make a couple of a suggestions to our Banks for a sensible way to use the time they have (until recently) used making discontinuous topological transformations of the Law.  Firstly, they might like to ensure that all of their staff take a few very basic lessons in morality, preferably followed by quite a searching examination (and perhaps one that is repeated annually, like an MOT for morals).  Secondly, they should perhaps start explaining to the folks whose money they have been gambling away how they actually bring value to society?  If not, I feel that governments – ever at the mercy of public opinion – well regulate them, if not out of existence, then at least back to the 1950s.  If this happens, I suspect we would all be the poorer for the change.

This post does seem quite short of jokes (unless you would be willing to accept financial regulation as the ‘joke’),  but after the previous post many readers may consider this a positive (or business-as-usual).