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Showing posts from December, 2009

Playing games with language

In the days where I was reluctantly forced into interminable business meetings, myself and some co-conspirators would try to reduce the tedium by playing little games. One such game was called "bullsh*t bingo". We would compile a list of meaningless business phrases and tick them off as they came up. "no brainer", "low-hanging fruit", "proactive", "treeing"- all would find their place in our little game.

Recently, however, I notice the spread of drivel a long way from the narrow world of business. It is not just the Dragon's Den TV show that has popularised corporate dull-speak, but across television a whole new language seems to be emerging which has very little to do with the way that people actually speak- or even think. For some reason, shampoo seems to be responsible for particularly banal phrases: "radiant shine", "dazzling" and- a particular bug-bear of mine- "fragrance".

Newspapers too- especiall…

The calm before the fall

There have always been two schools of thought about the track of this particular crisis in the British economy. Firstly that the dramatic contraction in spending power would lead to price deflation- that the reduction in spending power would lead to a nominal fall in prices. The second was that the crisis would make money worth much less: that inflation would take a hold. Of the two, the policy makers fear deflation much more, because it is much harder to combat once it takes a hold- as the state of health of the Japanese economy has shown. Furthermore, inflation gradually reduces debt burdens, instead of increasing them- and the government has taken on a gigantic level of debt.

From the point of view of the consumer, though, inflation is quite bad news- essentially it reduces the value of holding money. This is why the inflation bears have become very strong gold-bugs, since gold typically holds its value when fiat money is being debased by inflation.

After the shocking absence of meas…

Vitali Vitaliev: Life as a Literary Device

Sometimes a book comes along that defies categories and recently VitaliVitaliev has written a truly enthralling, unique book. (Full disclosure: Vitali is an old friend of mine). I have even- for the first time- reviewed the book for Amazon.com.

Here is what I thought about the book:

"VitaliVitaliev is used to journeys, and in this book he takes us as a companion on a journey of time and space- dozens of countries over two decades- and a journey of the mind. He is a great companion. By turns wry, tragic and laugh-out-loud funny, in the end he delivers a tour-de-force of warmth and humanity. The stream of consciousness structure creates links between places and people- Tasmania and Clive James, London and Peter Ustinov- that scintillate with wit and wisdom. he meets his triumphs and disasters and eventually treats those two impostors just the same.

Moving in a zig-zag across the globe from his native city of Kharkiv in Ukraine to Folkestone, Melbourne, the Falkland Islands, the fall o…

The UK: paying the price for failure

The last week has seen a whole slew of economic figures, but much of this was drowned out by the failure of the pre-budget report to address the growing fiscal crisis in the UK. However this crisis is just one of the problems that now beset the British economy.

We have seen an increase in the gap between the value of what Britain exports and what it imports. This reflects the fact that import costs have increased as a result of weaker Sterling. Meanwhile there was the announcement that British industrial production has stagnated. Yet, this stagnation is despite the fall in the value of the Pound that should make our goods much more competitive in the global market place.

The trend is instructive: in 1980, manufacturing represented 26.5% of UK GDP, in 2005, the last year for which we have comparable figures, the figure was 13.6%. It is estimated now that manufacturing represents less than 10% of current British GDP. Whereas the United States can return to being a workshop for the world, …

PBR?!.... RIP!

The Pre-Budget Review in the UK is a fiasco.

The policy measures announced are either pointless- the change in the Bingo levy, for goodness sakes- or dangerous- the increase in National Insurance. There is much rhetoric about cuts, no actual delivery. Even the "Banker's Bonus Tax" will raise nothing, and, by the way, similar measures were abandoned in both France and Germany (neither exactly "the Bankers Friend"), because they were thought to be unconstitutional. Taxes are supposed to be levied on the general population, if you start levying specific taxes, how long can it be before they become arbitrary, populist attacks on the chosen "people's enemy" of the day. Oh, wait a minute...

The real terror of this PBR, however, is in the detailed numbers on the economy.

When the UK stayed unexpectedly in recession last quarter, we were told that this was probably just "technical", and that the economy would be shown to have actually emerged from …

Shock News: Telegraph gets it right!

I don't usually agree with Op-Ed pieces in the Daily Telegraph.

This morning, however, there is a very good piece from Philip Johnston.

He points out that the repeated promises -over decades- from politicians of all stripes to make "efficiency savings" are actually impossible to deliver without a radical reform of the system of public expenditure.

The Civil Service is only interested in controlling the costs of expenditure in the current system. They are not interested in whether the system should be changed or even whether much of what government is prescribing is actually necessary at all.

What today's Pre-Budget report is going to show is that the British cupboard- apart from some mouldy crumbs of envy taxes- is totally empty. Unless we tackle the systemic costs of the public sector we are going to face even more rapid economic decline.

Over the long term, the burden of sustaining an extraordinary wasteful state sector is going to fall on a declining number of increasi…

Time for some tough talking

I joined the Liberal Party in 1979. I have been a Liberal Democrat since the foundation of the party. I have been a passionate and avowed Liberal Democrat and a liberal of a fairly libertarian stripe all my adult life.

My family have been committed to the party not just in recent wilderness years but all through the real darkness of the 1950s and indeed over four generations back to the beginning of the twentieth century. I have stood for innumerable, unwinable, elections and donated, over the years, many thousands of pounds to a cause that I deeply believe in. I have seen seven leaders come and go, some of them I have known quite well and respected, some perhaps less so.

Such devotion to a political party is not unique to the Liberal Democrats, but being a supporter of our party has not usually been a matter of the calculation of political advantage- it has been a stand of principle and not of patronage. Our party devoted attention to ideas. Our policies on such issues as devolution or…

Dear Britain,

I have been thinking about us. Things have not been working out for us for a while now. We have been spending more and more time apart. I find I just can't understand you any more.

You seem embarked on a mission of self destruction. In particular I find it extraordinary that you keep flirting with wholly unsuitable men. A few years ago you fell for the public school charms of Tony Blair. "This time" you said "it is different. We can have a caring, Socialist government and still have a good economy". As we now both know, the reality was rather different. With his dubious friends, led by Peter Mandelson, he let you down. Bloodied and crying you now think of him with tearful rage "He's a war criminal!" you cry. "He led me into an illegal war". Meanwhile his hand picked successor is a humourless, vaguely paranoid figure with none of that dangerous, sexy charisma that first attracted you to Tony Blair. I could warn you about David Cameron, yet…

Where does Britain go from here?

Britain invented industry and the modern capitalist economy. Our inventions include: smelting iron with coke, the metal lathe, steel, steam power, the railways, modern textile production, bicycles, television, telephone, the jet engine, the submarine, the hovercraft, toilet paper, the world wide web and even this list barely scratches the surface.

In "soft power", our philosophers include John Locke, the apostle of Liberalism, John Stuart Mill, Sir Karl Popper and Sir Isiah Berlin. The cultural impact of our country is extraordinary: our language is universal and most of the last four decades has been dominated by music from the Beatles to Pink Floyd that is British.

Yet Britain now faces an existential crisis. We are told that whereas our economy was the fourth largest in 2005, by 2015- on current trends- it will no longer be in the top ten. Our industrial base has shrunk dramatically. we no longer produce cars or bicycles or pianos or many other things that our country wa…

A Constitution for Liberty

The British press have been raising the subject of the number of innocent people who have been taking photographs who have been questioned by Police. On the face of it, it is wholly appropriate for the Police to be vigilant against the threat of terrorism, however the framing of the anti-terror legislation has been sloppy and open ended. In fact this is the defining characteristic of Nu Labour legislation across the board. The determination to pass legislation with minimum scrutiny has led to a huge amount of badly drafted bills being signed into law, and has required repeated repair to unworkable or prohibitively expensive measures.

The problem that the British parliament has is that there are few if any guiding principles that can help create consistency of legislation. The result is a large mass of conflicting statutes that create enormous complications. As technology has developed, much in law has failed to match these developments. Whereas privacy was the assumed fundamental posit…

Tea on Today

Perhaps because Central & Eastern Europe is a relatively obscure topic, I often find myself asked to comment on events by different television channels. It is an interesting contrast. For example, Bloomberg television is very high-tech, CNN far less so, while BBC Television is positively spartan, not even having a "green room" where one can wait before being interviewed. Over the past few days the events in Dubai have caused the global markets to examine the finances of Greece and Hungary. As a result I have been called by several media outlets. Yesterday I did the early morning slot for BBC TV news. This morning I was called in to talk to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4.

"Today" does have a green room, and given that it is radio, one can take notes into the studio- as a couple of fellow guests did. The green room even has breakfast, including yogurt and toast- a distinct improvement on the simple dab of make up powder that television provided yesterday. It w…

Credit Crunch 2.0

Over the course of the third quarter of this year, the impact of the financial tsunami which hit the global economy in 2008 has appeared to stabilise. Banks whose balance sheets have been severely damaged by the crisis have been forcibly merged, restructured or taken into public ownership. The single major player- Lehman- that went under caused so much damage that policy makers have vowed not to repeat that mistake. As banks struggled to retrench without increasing the global problems, the monetary authorities released huge amounts of liquidity. The result has been a rally in asset prices as the availability of credit, while not at the levels of 2007, is at least more predictable.

However, by taking on so much extra debt onto government books, the problem has not been diminished, but only moved around. Whereas the shareholders of banks had been looking at taking the impact of large loan losses, their place has been taken by tax payers. In some cases, this has been a great success: tax …