There’s something about Mary

We’ve just welcomed a new grandchild into our world – hello, Robin Grace Spilman.  Which made me play around the internet looking at the most popular girls’ and boys’ names over the last century, and come across a surprise.  The name Mary was the most popular in the USA from colonial times, through the nineteenth century right up to 1946.  Then it was replaced by another name, which took first place from 1947 to 1952.  Have a few seconds, minutes or hours guessing what that name might be (you won’t get it) and then look here.

In passing, last year Mary was the 123rd most popular name for newborn American girls, way behind Brittany, Tiffany and Melody.  Behind Jordyn and Kaitlin.  Behind London. Sigh. I guess it’s a generation thing.

Family fortunes

There’s been a recent spat in the press and amongst the twitterati/literati about a war between the generations. The basic idea is that those who were born into the post-war world – the ‘baby boomers’ – have led a privileged life, enjoying incomes, resources and property that will have to be paid for by their children.  It seems to have started with “The Pinch”, a book by David Willets, who combines a career as a Conservative politician with a reputation as a bit of a thinker – “Two Brains” is the nickname.  Ed Howker and Shiv Malik took up the baton with “Jilted Generation: How Britain Has Bankrupted Its Youth” (though their follow-up articles are balanced and sensible). The argument is picked up when a newspaper columnist is short of something to be outraged about, and is sometimes mixed in with the nonsense about the burden of National Debt we are passing on to the next generation.  Matthew Parris in The Times on June 15 for example, confessed how shamefaced he was when a young activist at a Conservative meeting upbraided him about the fact that she had to pay for an education that was free to an older generation.

The reaction has been mixed.  Some oldies look at their shoelaces and mutter “fair cop, guv”.  Others feel able let us know how they worked for every penny they own, and tell you how the frost formed on the inside of their bedroom windows when they were kids.  I certainly do.  It may be tedious for binge-drinkers to hear about teenagers in the 1960s whose night out involved keeping one pint of lager-and-lime going for a couple of hours, or who had three wearable shirts and one set of shoes, but it’s the truth.  So is the £50 limit on overseas holidays.  However, once you get beyond reminders of genuine austerity, there is some frankly selfish stuff from affluent oldies to the effect that any government trying to cut their benefits would have to rip the bus pass from their cold, dead hands.  There have been some decent responses – for example, from Bryan Appleyard – but generally the debate is on a yah-boo level, and seems to me to miss the points that are being made.

First, education.  It is true that my higher education was free, in the sense that I paid no fees.  However, when I got my first job I paid 33% income tax.  Today’s graduates pay 20% income tax, which might be increased by 9% if they exceed a certain threshold, to pay for the cost of university education.  It does not need an accountant to see who is doing best out of these arrangements.  In any case, the costs of education in the fifties and sixties – teacher salaries, buildings, libraries, canteens – were paid by taxpayers at the time. They could do that because fewer than 5% of the population went to university then: so even if you resent the 1960s students who got free higher education, there weren’t many of them.  The remaining 90+% of oldies got no benefit at all. But no-one seems to say that those who went to secondary moderns – more than ten times as many as went to HE – or paid their way through technical college – without scholarships or grants – deserve some sort of rebate.

Second, housing.  The thesis is that the older generation own all the houses, so that youngsters have to buy costly houses from the old, or rent.  Well, yes.  But this is how it has always been.  Not many 25 year old singletons owned houses when I was a spring chicken.  And the shortage of affordable housing is due to policy mistakes – outstandingly overblown mortgage funding to boost demand, and selling off social housing, and restrictive planning laws to restrict supply.

Thirdly, the National Debt.  Now, government finances matter, and one burden that will be passed on is found in the Private Finance Initiative, which prevents local councils and health authorities borrowing money cheaply to build roads, schools, hospitals and roads, but instead insists they have to go to the financiers and city shysters to fund them. An overpriced motorway or stadium is indeed a burden, and politicians could stop the idiocy straight away, and show some sincerity in their worries about the future.  But they don’t.  Instead, they drone on about the straightforward ordinary National Debt which is not much of a burden in any meaningful sense, as long as the spending it supported has been wise (and it hasn’t all come from foreigners).  We have, I know, been here before, but just remember that the ‘privileged’ 1945 generation inherited a National Debt of 240% of the GNP – compared to 70% today.  We paid it down so that by 1968 it was around current levels.  It made no difference to national prosperity either when it was above current proportions, or below.  And if you worry that the next generation will ‘inherit’ the National Debt, well, they will inherit all the bonds and premium bonds and national savings certificates and Treasury Bills that make it up, too.

Indeed, the wealth created by the work of the baby-boomers will greatly enrich the coming generation, either directly through inheritance or indirectly via the Bank of Mum and Dad. Most of the kids I know, sons and daughters of friends, have been helped onto the property ladder with parental help.  Many will inherit substantial amounts of property. The government is even promising to ensure that this bounty is not soaked up by social care costs, which I think is a policy mistake, but there it is.  As part of the gilded post-war generation, I inherited no property at all from my parents, apart from a cutlery set.   Remember too the vast social inheritance my generation will leave.  Who do the commentators believe paid for Heathrow, or the National Grid, or the motorway system, or the hospitals and bridges and schools that Generation X uses ?

None of which implies that we should load money onto the poor old pensioners.  I wrote earlier that I have some sympathy for the proposal that high earning pensioners should no longer receive, as of right, free travel, heating subsidies and TV licences. But this isn’t part of a guilt payment on behalf of the privileged older generation, but an acknowledgement that richer people, whatever their age, should pay more into social funds than poorer.  In fact, it is the complete opposite of the generation war – it is a statement that age is not a good criterion for anything much.  Give up a seat on the bus to a disabled person by all means. They may be an oldie with arthritis, but could be a youngster with a war injury: the point is disability, not age.  Make sure no-one is too poor to heat their home, because there are poor pensioners – Alice Thomson points out in The Times (26 June) that 1.7m pensioners live below the poverty line, and 26% have savings of less than £1,500.  But the point is poverty, not age: we are too rich a society (and the energy companies make too much money) to leave anyone shivering.  Ensure no-one is trapped in their home by transport costs: the point is access, not age.

A couple of final points.  It is important to realise that we are living longer, and this will create the need for different arrangements for retirement and pensions.  But this isn’t about a selfish generation grabbing all the goodies, and our attempts to manage the position will not be helped if we think it is.  And remember this, too.  Climate change and environmental despoliation really are a malign inheritance for the next generation.  We should leave our children a sustainable and beautiful world.  But the reason this seems unlikely is not about generational selfishness,  but about the profit-mad world of the neo-liberal marketer, the hedge funder and the corporate chief exec.  Those buggers have much to answer for, and many of them are under forty.

Miles better

Today’s post is going to have a bit of “what I did on my holidays” flavour about it.  My wife and I have just come back from an anniversary trip to Glasgow.  I’d been there once before, on business, but didn’t have the time to appreciate the city.  And appreciation is, I think, the right word, because it is a magnificent place.  It doesn’t have the royal palaces of Edinburgh, but the impressive public and private buildings bear testimony to its being ‘the second city of the Empire’ in Victorian and Edwardian days.  George Square is overwhelmingly grand,  and the Museum of Modern Art a Greek temple to culture.  Another example: a pub called the Counting House in the most magnificent former banking hall.  And just as impressive is the social and economic robustness of the city, which must have suffered some of the hardest economic damage of any UK city.  The coal mines and textiles have gone, and all but two of the shipyards too.  There was a time when Glasgow built more than 90% of the ships of the world, but only 5 of those ships are still afloat.  Many of the superb commercial buildings in the Merchant City were funded by tobacco money. Yet, with all this activity long gone, the city is lively and even, in some places, elegant.  Some reflections:

  • I take no sides on the Scottish independence debate – loathe nationalism, but can’t see why any country would wish to hang on to regions/nations that want to make their own way in the world.  But Glasgow does feel a bit foreign.  When the architecture is not nodding towards Rennie Macintosh, or Greek temples, it has an almost East European feel, like Prague or Budapest.  And the accent is genuinely difficult: an example – it was the first time I can remember being unable to make out the safety instructions on the airplane tannoy.  As the old joke has it “The Italian mafia make you an offer you can’t refuse; the Glasgow mafia make you an offer you can’t understand”.  This was also true of black Glaswegians and Chinese Glaswegians.  All the people we met were, however, unanimously friendly and welcoming, taxi drivers especially so.
  • Take back everything you’ve heard about Scottish food.  We had a wonderful lunch at the Number 16 restaurant in the West End – a £16 three course lunch as good as anything I can remember.  Our anniversary dinner was at the Ubiquitous Chip, which cost quite a bit more but was real top-drawer stuff.  Breakfasts were excellent.   I will never speak of deep-fried Mars Bars again.
  • The hills !  No-one told me that Glasgow gave San Francisco a run for its money with all the ups and downs.  If anyone wants to reshoot the car-chase from Bullitt, they need not cross the Atlantic.  We went to see the Glasgow School of Art, Rennie Macintosh’s masterpiece, not realizing that the final ascent needed oxygen and Sherpas.  Visiting the Tenement Building was similarly demanding.  Coming down from the Cathedral to the City Centre on a snowy day would challenge Jean-Claude Killy.
  • The traffic was arranged like New York – much of the city is on a grid, and whole roads are denoted as one way streets.  This no doubt speeds the traffic – though for some reason not the buses – but it does take away any intimacy from the cityscape.  If an area is not pedestrianised, it is car dominated.  I think that two-way traffic slows things down to a more human level.
  • Big criticism – litter.  It is the most littered city I have visited in the UK.  Can’t see why that should be, though it may be a consequence of a system where people leave their garbage in plastic bags at the kerb-side, which is an invitation to feral cats and foxes. People don’t seem bothered – wander through the mess along Sauchiehall Street – nor do they pick up litter (I did), and you can play that sad game of spotting the piece of litter closest to a litter bin.  Interestingly, a Scottish tourist bigwig makes the exact same point in this week’s Sunday Times.
  • Splendid museums and galleries.  The Transport Museum won the European Museum of the Year for 2013, and I can see why.  It was heartening to see the delight of working class Glaswegians as they saw a familiar old tram or double-decker, and I was pleased to come across the first Hillman Imp (Scottish built, of course) amid the Bentleys and locomotives.  There was even a Mini that had been through the European crash test, and a cut-and-shut Ford Escort GTi.  The Burrell Collection is rightly world famous – not over-large, and charming in its mix of exhibits.  In the British Museum, you can spend the whole day in the Egyptian sections, whereas the Burrell takes you under French medieval gateways on a trip from British domestic ware to a Stuart dining room to weapons to Chinese porcelain to a Rembrandt self-portrait in a few steps. The Kelvingrove is wonderful, as is the Hunterian.  We didn’t have time for it all, breaking my rule (see earlier post) that after three days you’ve done most of any city.
  • Will we ever get into whisky ?  We visited the Pot Still and dabbled in 10 year Talisker, but maybe (even with internet guidance and – would you believe – internet tasting) life is too short to develop all our weaknesses.
  • Rennie Mackintosh was a genius.  Many cities and towns oversell their sons and daughters.  Not in this case.  But he died broke, like Mozart.
  • Many of the great institutions were the result of donations from the rich – not just the Burrell, for example, but also the park within which it is located.  Great university and museum buildings show the confidence and magnanimity of the era.  Are we doing this now ?  I know that there are some philanthropists, Gates, Ondaatje and Sainsbury, but when was the last city park or museum established or library saved by a hedge fund trader or bonus laden banker ?

Tough at the … where ?

In recent years the pay of senior managers in both private and public sector has grown quickly.  The New York Times reports that the average pay of a top 100 company Chief Executive is $14m, compared to the average US income of $40,000.  The lifetime earnings of a college graduate in the US will be about $2.3m: the CEO of Apple last year – yep, in one year – received share options worth more than $600m.  In the UK last year, in a stagnant economy the value of share options available to top executives went up 49%.  The Guardian reveals that the pay of Barclays Bank’s CEO is 75 times that of an average employee: in 1979, it was 14 times.

The argument is that we need to pay exceptional amounts of money to attract exceptional individuals, who can make all the difference to the success of companies and national bodies.  I think that’s wrong – there are countries in Scandinavia and northern Europe which have not suffered from avoiding this approach.  The argument would also have more force if the top jobs were genuinely competitive: if they were, maybe the emoluments might come down a little.   It is also obvious that not-very-good executives who fail to achieve worthwhile goals still get their mouths in the trough.  Network Rail, anyone ?  However, the argument does have a certain logic to it.

However, we learned today that the retiring Chief Executive of RBS will receive a pay-off that could be well over £5m.  Even if we believe the idea that you need megabucks to retain and recruit talent, why on earth are we being asked to pay such a sum for someone who is leaving ?  It makes no sense in either of the possible scenarios: that he is really good, and we want him to stay (= don’t bribe him to go, then) or he is not very good and we want him to go (= he is not the top talent we want to recruit and retain).

Culture of … what ?

Short post today, drawing attention to a recent piece of research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation into ‘the culture of worklessness’.  I am sure you’ve heard that there are families where no-one has worked for three generations, where welfare-dependency is a way of life.  Well, the Foundation looked into this and found out that it is … er … just not true.  The number of unemployed people whose parents are unemployed is pretty small, and the number whose grandparents haven’t worked is vanishingly tiny.  Where parents are unemployed, the children are determined to make a success of life and are strongly committed to a work ethic.  Middle class people with jobs sometimes delight in creating a nether world of their own imaginations, populated by a (right-wing view) shiftless or (left-wing view) powerless and victimised working class.  I remember being assured by an earnest community education worker in a Sheffield council estate that “no-one in that road has a job”, when the obvious social problem seemed to me the way that the new Mondeos and Escort vans were chewing up the grass verge.

So the culture of worklessness is not the problem.  Neither, as Jonathan Portes points out in an LRB review, is immigration.  Neither is over-generous welfare, as Seamus Milne shows in a recent op-ed piece in the Guardian.  The Rowntree report concludes that the best way to counter unemployment is to provide jobs.  But I think we knew that.

The big shrug

Daniel Finkelstein wrote a column in the Times today, claiming that Labour will have to face up to the need to make major cuts in public spending and welfare if it is to be a credible modern party.  Well, it’s Murdoch, I suppose, but it is sad to see this nonsense.  I’ve followed Mr Finkelstein’s columns with interest, and enjoyed the sporadic TV appearances: he is particularly good at the application of maths and statistics to everyday problems and beliefs, even in sport.  An example: he explains why sports teams get improved results when they sack a manager, and it’s the same reason accidents decline when a speed camera is installed on a busy road.  Namely, reversion to the mean – after a set of bad results/outcomes, the workings of normality mean you get a string of good outcomes.

However, he was a Conservative apparatchik – director of their research department – and, no matter how strong his commitment to rationality might be, he can’t get that out of his blood.  So, he doesn’t see that the major, even only issue at the moment is to encourage growth and drive up incomes, to reduce unemployment and create wealth.  It really isn’t to make government cuts.  The austerity v. growth debate is over, and the austerians have lost.  The research they relied upon has been thoroughly discredited – not just flawed, but (given the nature of the errors in the calculations) deliberately warped.  The IMF is apologizing for its mistakes, agreeing that the advice given to Greece was wrong, and their calculation of spending multipliers flawed. The recovery from the shock of 2008 is slower than the recovery from the Depression of the 1930s.  The budget deficit is regularly revised upwards, and we have not experienced the full horrors of the cuts yet.

It used to be the left who ignored the facts and theories that discredited their views.  Yet those days are past.  No-one nowadays is asking for a 98% tax rate, a command economy or widespread nationalization.  But the right seem unable to change their views in the light of overwhelming evidence: there appears to be nowhere that the Osborn/Rogoff/IMF measures have had any success.  The policy response to failure has been described by Paul Krugman as “the big shrug”.  In the case of Rogoff and co, the response is “ we are still right even though the evidence no longer supports us”.  Strewth: my economics degree is a Bachelor of Science, but to call that way of thinking scientific seems a stretch. Economics as homeopathy/astrology.

The Finkelstein article was sparked by Labour temporising as to whether they support specific government cuts or not.  Of course not every aspect of government expenditure can be justified in a changing world, and some programmes are ineffective.  Of course the Labour leadership is unimpressive.  The Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls is a blustering vote-loser – what would be called, in cricket parlance, a walking wicket.   He has the awful false smile of the bully who wants to be liked. He can’t seem to decide whether to oppose austerity, or say he would do it better.  But I suspect the reason he and others in the Labour leadership are mumbling about ‘tough decisions’ (ps. never trust a politician who speaks of tough decisions – they are always tough on someone else) is not because they think they’re a good idea, but because of the unanimity of press and TV that cuts are the only way forward, and the idea that, to be considered ‘serious’, commentators and politicians must ‘address the problem of the deficit’, and the way that plays with public perceptions.  But we have had deficits before, and massively larger national debt to GDP ratios: 120% in the 1920s, 250% in the 1940s (despite the claims of Eamonn Butler published uncorrected in the Times last week – see my letter to the press elsewhere in this blog).  We lowered those proportions by expansion and growth: I was born in 1945 and cannot remember my childhood or working career being blighted by an over-high national debt at any stage.  The proportion of debt to GDP was higher from 1940 to 1968, and lower from 1969 to 2010: this was never a matter of political debate, or made not the slightest difference to our national prosperity one way or the other.

Bringing forward a plan for recovery, and finding imaginative ways to fund the investment and job-creation is the priority, the only priority.  It  will be very difficult: actually, it will be tough.  But we are a  resourceful nation, and have a financial sector that is adept at creating new financial products.  Billions are fed into monetary easing, and there must be a way to use that to energise the economy rather than bloat the banks.  Simple initial measures could help.  Reinstate Educational Maintenance Awards.  Stop cuts to local government.  Support plans for improving the transport infrastructure in London and elsewhere.  Reduce VAT to shore up the standard of living of (sigh) hard-working families at a time when incomes are falling, and predicted to fall further.

I write to the Times regularly, and get published pretty often.  But no letter deviating from the austerity norm is permitted.  It would be nice, if far-fetched, to think of someone having a word with the editor to see if an article by somebody decent – Krugman would do – could be commissioned to counter the flood of nonsense we have to read on the other side.

Redundant language

This is me saving the English language again. The lone crusader.

A friend asks why we use the phrase ‘temper tantrum’: what other sort of tantrum, is there, he asks.  Then I hear another query about people who have a ‘new baby’. Again, what other sort is there ?

Can we start a collection of verbal redundancies ?