Scarlett woman

Controversy again, I’m afraid.

My ears pricked up when the recent controversy between Scarlett Johansson and Oxfam hit the press.  Briefly, Ms Johansson was an Ambassador (=high profile supporter) of the charity, but was also featured in a Sodastream advertisement that aired during the Superbowl.  It appears that Sodastream have a factory in the West Bank, and so Oxfam asked her to break her link with the company.  And she told them to get lost. And I’m pleased I’m not the only person who thinks, good on her.

I have supported Oxfam for years – not vast amounts, but £50 a month plus tax relief for twenty years adds up. Adds up to about £15,000, actually, but that’s all they are going to get from me – Oxfam’s loss is Sheffield Children’s Hospital’s gain.  I had been worried for a while at the increasingly political stance of charities (e.g. War on Want demands we stop arming Israel, which may or may not be a good idea but has only the most tangential connection with ending hunger).  The words of a South American priest – “when I feed the poor, they call me a saint, when I ask why they are poor they call me a communist” – are rattling around in the background, but it is hard to see how opening a factory in an area adds to poverty.  The answer is, of course, that Oxfam supports the boycott of Israeli goods, which seems to me to be a long way from drilling wells, buying donkeys and planting grain.  One wonders, in passing, what Oxfam would have thought if the Israeli authorities had stepped in to prevent an international company creating jobs in the West Bank.  The incident led me to a little research and I discovered that Oxfam has some decidedly whiffy partners.  There’s the man who says Jews are descended from apes and pigs, and then there is the fellow who says the Jews deserved the Holocaust (which makes a difference, I suppose, from saying the Holocaust didn’t happen, but racists have never been that hot on logic).  Of course there is a difference between anti-Zionism and anti-semitism, but we can all agree which side of the divide these remarks fall.

When I switched, I got a rather disingenuous e-mail, asking me to be assured that Oxfam condemns anti-Semitism, and any other form of discriminatory language and practices, and we only fund organisations that share our mission to alleviate poverty and social injustice.”  Now, does that mean you have links with people but don’t send them money ? I think it does.

One day I’ll come back to the issue of anti-Zionism. Being anti-Zionist must go beyond condemning the Israeli government for many of its policies towards Palestinians (which I do, along with many Israelis).  It surely means that you think the world would be a better place without a Jewish state in the Middle East.  And I don’t think it takes very much thought to see that is not true.  What assurance would ex-Israeli Jews have of a safe life in an Arab state, given what happened to the substantial Jewish minorities in Iraq, Iran, Egypt (etc etc) ?  What assurance, for that matter, do Bedouin Christians ?  And if a two-state solution is the solution (which it probably is, even if it is not logically compatible with anti-Zionism – Ms Johansson, who has her head screwed on, is entirely logical when she supports good relations between Israel and Palestine), why didn’t Jordan and Egypt set a Palestinian ‘entity’ up when they had control of Gaza and the West Bank between 1948 and 1967 ?  And I simply don’t think Israel is the wickedest place on earth, to be selected for boycotts ahead of China and Sudan and Iran and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and … (fill in for the next fifteen minutes).  I’m a card-carrying progressive on pretty much everything, from government tax and spending, capital punishment, anti-racism, gay rights, abortion, the whole deal, but this is an area where I slip away quietly to the corner of the room and wonder whether it’s just me.

Self, self, self

My devoted reader(s) will have gathered that I am not a great fan of the idea of government cuts.  As far as I can see they reduce the amount of economic activity whilst hurting the vulnerable: I am one of the people who think that the rich are using the 2008 crash – an economic crisis that they created with the irresponsible behavior of the financial sector – to justify attacks on the poor.

However.

One suggested area for cuts is the benefits paid to affluent pensioners, of which I am one.  It is said that people are more secretive about their income than about their sex life, but I’m not: my pension is calculated at half of my salary as a college Principal, so it’s more than twice the average national wage, and it keeps up with inflation.  And I’ve paid my mortgage off.  I have no shame about being comfortably off, but I can see why there have been exploratory proposals asking whether (at a time of austerity) it is sensible for people like me to receive extra winter fuel allowance, free bus travel or TV licences.  Yet even raising the very idea brings older commentators out in apoplectic rage*, and I can’t see why.  Apart from selfishness, that is.  Think for a moment: any benefits we get must be paid for by others who are working harder and earning less than us: this is not a good idea.

There’s an aspect of this in the general understanding that it would be scandalous to ask people who have high levels of savings (=wealth) or valuable homes (=wealth) to pay towards their care as they get old and inform.  We seem to have sleep-walked into a position where people feel that leaving a fat sum from the sale of their house to their children is a human right: and the affected family members express the loudest outrage.  I am not one of those who think the millennial generation is being consciously dished by us baby-boomers, but, again,  the question must be asked: in a world without free lunches, who therefore pays ?  It must, by definition, be those who are not expecting a large inheritance from their parents (or, to be fair, those whose parents died inexpensively, without needing years of costly care).  Why are these policies not challenged, or at least discussed ?

Our media join the government in assuming that we are beings who act like the ‘economic man’ of academic textbooks, constantly seeking our own advantage.  Any coverage of government budget announcements centre round the mantra “how this will affect you” rather than “how will this affect the country ?” or “what is the argument for these changes ?”.  The case for discouraging fossil fuel use, for example, has almost been muted by this approach.  The government will not touch OAP benefits because us greybeards vote in large numbers, and they assume we will vote in our own narrow self-interest.  Yet in many areas – go to any half-marathon and look at thousands of people running for charity – us humans are an unselfish bunch, and with encouragement could do more.  Can’t the press or politicians see that ?  Whatever happened to “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” ?

* there is one proposal that is just never discussed at all.  This is that those on generous occupational pensions (i.e. me) should not get the state pension on top.  I get twice the national average income in a pension, and then, each month, the nice government gives me £500 on top.

 

Political cliches as rock bands

A lovely recent tweet from http://hopisen.com/?p=6125: he has snaffled the Hardworking Families, but I think there will be a ready audience for the first album by Asylum Seeker and the Claimants, Robust Measures, or Forward Guidance. How about Austerity and the Cuts ?

Written by hopisen

Regular readers may know that I’m a big fan of the US alt-country-folk singer Todd Snider. I’m not alone, he’s a beer drinking buddy of Rahm Emanuel. Todd’s new band is called Hard Working Americans, and their self-titled new album was released in the UK this week. It’s brilliant, and you should all buy it. (Especially you, Stewart Wood, as I half wonder if a left slanted country rock album featuring Neil Young, Randy Newman and Bottle Rockets covers wasn’t made specifically for you)

Anyway, what I really like is the band name. There aren’t enough political clichés that have become band names. So here’s my top ten political clichés that should really have been band names. (Thanks to many people on Twitter for inspiration)

  1. Squeezed Middle

Britain’s Eurovision entry for 2004 were the Cheeky Girls of their moment. Effectively an advert for corsetry in pop form, Squeezed middle’s brief pop career was followed by a somewhat longer Reality TV career for their three pneumatic vocalists.

  1. Tough Choices

Originally a hard metal band from Pittsburgh, Tough Choices ended up as poodle rock pioneers whose choices mostly revolved around whether to get drunk or high. Their 1987 multi-platinum sophomore effort ’Lines to take’  explored these themes exhaustively, as did the band, leading to their break up.

  1. The Promise of Britain.

(This is an odd one, as it’s a cliché even though only Ed Miliband uses it).

The Promise of Britain are a neo-prog rock supergroup. Their first album, ‘Together in the National Interest’ is ranked with British Sea Power as the definitive album for University Engineering students.

  1. The Third Way

Achingly cool nouvelle vague, whose thirteen minute ‘A new dawn has broken’ is a caustic hymn to the morning after the night before.

  1. Innovation Nation

Cruelly dubbed ‘Birmingham’s premier Krafktwerk tribute band’, IN haven’t let the sneers stop them build a career as Electronica for the dubstep generation. ‘A race to the Top’ is no ‘Autobahn’, but it’s no M25 either.

  1.  On Your Side

Nineties boy band OYS pioneered the “Gay Club to Pop charts” route to fame.  OYS had three years of mega-stardom before apparent gangland links of lead vocalist Muley led to their rapid fall from grace. Still, we’ll always have ‘Forward (Not Back)’.

  1. Hear Hear

Reggae pioneers Hear Hear might not have had the fame of Marley, but they never lost their audience. Still touring to packed arena halls today, Hear Hear have outlasted almost every band of their generation, and their recent album ‘Mister Speaker’ still topped the US Reggae charts.

  1. Up And Down The Country

Johnny Marr’s post Smiths’ Country band showed that the guitar legend could play a mean slide guitar. Before their time, they never went mainstream, but their second album ‘These strikes are wrong’ was a savage indictment of post-Thatcher Britain with a country twang.

  1. Beer and Sandwiches

They’ll never be cool, but forty years of touring and seven Gold albums tells you there’ll always be a good audience for Pub rock with half an eye on Britain’s music hall tradition. Don’t pretend you can’t hum ‘Time for a Change’. We know you can.

  1. Metropolitan Liberal Elite

Turned down by seventeen record companies, Newcastle’s MLE persevered and their big break came when touring as support to Depeche Mode on a massive US tour. (Intriguingly, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark were going to have that gig, but pulled out.) Suddenly, MLE had an audience of thousands of American twenty-somethings, and their soulful arena-rock with added Synth overload topped by wistful, even downbeat vocals was the sound of the mid nineties.

Soon, MLE were the REM college boys could like. They confounded these expectations with the mega platinum ‘Partisan Pointscoring’ whose stripped down acoustic sound was an instant classic and remains the definitive album of Rock’s post Nirvana reflectiveness. MLE haven’t stopped making hits since, are friends with Presidents and own half of Twitter. Weirdly, they’re the only band ever that are now accused of slowly becoming their originally ironic name.

 

Currency

Here’s a topic that brings together the debate about Scottish independence, and the problems of the Euro – the advantages and disadvantages of being part of a large currency area (like Portugal and Greece being part of the eurozone, or Scotland retaining the GBP).

The advantages are pretty obvious, even if they are not stated.  The transaction costs of paying international bills comes down, because you don’t have to pay charges to exchange your home currency for a foreign currency.  I travel in Europe often, and it’s great to tuck away your Euros after a visit to Portugal or Italy knowing they’ll be just fine when you next visit France or Germany.  It frees me from the rogues at the airport currency booths (who promise ‘fee free currency’ when they mean ‘we’ll sting you on the exchange rate’).  It frees everyone from the bankers who fiddle the exchange rate to their advantage and are just being found out.  There is also greater certainty about the money you’ll get (or have to pay) from foreign trade.  Remember, Rolls Royce folded and had to seek government rescue not because they were inefficient, but because they sold a whole lot of aero engines to the USA before the dollar collapsed.  If these factors encourage trade, there are gains from specialization and economies of large scale production that will make us wealthier.

What are the disadvantages, then ?  Well, it’s a more complex argument.  At any one time, the advantages outlined above come into play.  But as time passes, one region or country becomes more or less efficient than another, and so their products become more or less competitive.  As the sales fall, unemployment rises, leaving poverty and despair.  If you have a separate currency, you can devalue – that is, give more foreign currency for your currency.  If a bottle of whisky costs £10 and the exchange rate is £1 = $1.50, the bottle costs $15 in the USA.  If you let the £ drift downwards to £1 = $1.20, it cost $12.  The alternative would be to impose cuts in wages and costs on workers and suppliers, which may be theoretically possible as a way of bringing down the prices to a competitive level again, but in practice leads to years of bitterness and industrial strife.  Have a look at the thirties, when everyone from civil servants, sailors and miners had their wages cut.  Wages, as economists say, are subject to a ‘ratchet effect’, or are ‘sticky downwards’.

Coming to the modern day, Portugal or Greece could, if they had maintained the escudo and drachma, have devalued against the euro (or mark or franc, had they been retained), making their products and services (like tourist holidays) much more competitive.  But as they are locked into the Euro, they can’t.  Result – rising unemployment, falling government revenues, bitterness, cynicism and the rise of extremism.  You can even ascribe the problem of poor regions – North East of England, Kentucky, Corsica – to their inability to devalue against the national currency.

So what should the Scots do ?  This was the topic of a recent talk by the Governor of the Bank of England.  My own feeling is that the Scots should stay in the UK,  partly to save the rest of us from years of Tory governments, but mostly because I loathe nationalism, the idea that what differentiates you from me is where you were born.  There is a wonderful, and more literate expression of this in the appendix to Dominion, C. J. Sansom’s recent novel about a Nazi Britain.  But if they choose to go it alone, then good luck to them.  I think they will have less need for luck if they have their own currency floating against the euro, pound sterling and US dollar.

Whilst I’m talking about foreign exchange, a brief look at some dishonest arguments about the Euro.  “You can’t leave the currency area once you’ve entered it”.  Oh, yes you can.  How do you think that Ireland or Australia (and many, many others) left the sterling zone at the end of Empire ?  “We won’t have the Queen on our currency any more”.  Yes, you will if you want.  The monarchs of Spain, Holland (etc etc) are on their country’s Euro coins. “But the Queen won’t be on our bank-notes”.  You’re right there.  But she wasn’t on UK banknotes until 1960.

And none of this is connected with the madness of the Gold Standard, which links the issuing of currency to the amount of gold governments hold.  Money has value because of what you can buy with it, not because of some mythical backing in precious metals.  Even if governments could control the volume of money (omits long argument about banking system), why should they hold it back if they have no gold, restricting trade, or expand it if they discover gold mines, causing inflation (as in Spain in the 16th century) ?

Quotable quotes

(A personal obsession – which I return to in August 2015)

We’ve all got favourite quotations, and I guess many are shared. “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”. “Die ? That is the last thing I shall do”. “I don’t want to join any club that would have me as a member”.  “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others”.   “It’s not what people don’t know that’s the problem, it’s what they do know for certain that isn’t true”.

There is also a list of quotations that actually didn’t happen, or were said by people less distinguished, and much later, than is usually assumed.  You can find many of them here.  Any pub quiz bore knows Shakespeare didn’t say all that glitters is not gold, and Rick didn’t cross his bar in Casablanca to tell Sam to play it again.  The famous Roman quotation about the fatuity of endless reorganization has been traced back all the way to … 1957.  Emma Goldman didn’t say “if I can’t dance, I don’t want your revolution”, and you can’t find Voltaire saying “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.  I guess the reason those sayings live on is that they fit closely to what those people believed.  On the other hand, Lenin probably did believe that “liberty is so precious it needs to be rationed”, even if we can’t pin down when he said it.

I have some favourite quotations that aren’t well known, aren’t obviously wrongly attributed, but I can’t pin down even with the benefit of Google.  Keynes was asked to change his recommendations for the post-war economic world, because the Americans wouldn’t agree with them.  He replied “So, because they won’t listen to sense, you want me to talk nonsense ?”.  It sounds just like the man, who I admire beyond words, and should be written into every consultant’s terms of engagement.  And as soon as I heard Wittgenstein pointing out “that which is simply asserted can be simply denied”, I whooped in recognition of a great simple truth enormously useful in rebutting idiots.  Problem is that I can’t find the origin of either. Anyone help out there ?