Saturday, 31 May 2008

Spring is sprung (update 2)

I just can't resist photographing the flowers at the moment. They are so profuse. (Click for a bigger view).

Love in the Mist


Wild poppies

Hot dogs (Misty and Bailey), still with too much winter wool. It may surprise you to learn that it gets freaking cold here in SW France

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Spring is sprung (update)

Couldn't resist these lovely spring scenes. Click a photo if you want a bigger view.

Daisies in our meadow

More wild flowers

And more

This is a wild orchid of some kind

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Spring is sprung

In our stables, in a hole in the wall:

"Eeny, meeny, miny, moe ..."

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

I think that sociologists have denied us something important: the "golden age". If you remember times when things were better you are accused of indulging in golden age thinking; that it was never thus, or if it was, there was a significant downside that you are ignoring.

So if you reflect on a green and pleasant land, when there was no point talking about organic, because everything was, and when there was no rural crime to speak of, then you will be told that actually people lived in grinding poverty and you are better off now. Plus you will be made to feel unsophisticated and foolish (which perhaps one is).

I want to talk knives. Though I live in France, I like to follow events in the UK, and knife crime among youths seems to be a hot topic.

Well, here's something from my golden age. "When I was a boy" (hem) most of had knives. A dagger in a sheath was part of the Boy Scout uniform. We used to take knives to school. I know, because we played the following interesting game.

There was a Stander and a Thrower and of course spectators. Stander stood with his feet together and Thrower threw a knive into the ground to the left or right of his feet. If the knive was more than a hand-width from Stander's foot, Stander won. If the knife was less than a hand-width, Stander moved his foot to touch the knife, which was then removed and the procedure repeated. If Thrower managed his end of it well, Stander would eventually be so spread-eagled that he would topple over. At that point Thrower won.

I guess Health and Safety had not been invented yet, because we were allowed to get on with this game during playtime. I can remember one boy getting a knife in the foot, but it seemed a rarity.

One more thing. In my Golden Age when knife-carrying was commonplace we never threatened another boy with a knife or used it in anger. I feel this came from us. It would have been, somehow, utterly disgraceful.

Postscript: I am indebted to Brother Tobias for reminding me that the game is played reciprocally, where the two face each other and take turns throwing the knife.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Band-aid, band-aid, band-aid

Foreign aid. An apparently sound idea with disastrous consequences, as per usual. The definition of foreign aid?

"The process by which money is taken from poor people in rich countries and given to rich people in poor countries".

Yeh, call me a cynic, but I believe more and more that it's so, so true.

Well, that's one aspect of it, namely the diverting of funds to improper uses and the corruption that both gives rise to it, and feeds off it. Mobutu, who was president of Zaire, had a fortune estimated to be $5 billion - though "only" a few million of these were ever tracked down, so perhaps there was some exaggeration.

What's worse, though, is the way aid destroys local economies.

Where you see starvation, you naturally want to do something about it. But what happens in a place where food is limited? Prices rocket, right? Is that good or bad? Now before you say "bad", think about what happens when food is expensive. Farmers and distributors see a way of making a fast buck and start providing food. More see what is happening and jump on the bandwagon. The supply is established and prices start to drop as suppliers compete.

However, the response of the West is to ship in food and distribute it for free. We've all seen the kids scrabbling for it - distressing, but at the same time gratifying. Except we don't think of what that dumping of free food does for the local economy. Anyone with a small surplus to sell is wiped out. Anyone thinking of taking the risk / expense of planting and harvesting food stops, because there is no point.

It's rather as if a friendly Martian touched down on Main Street, Peoria Illinois, and started handing out free washing machines. Many people would be delighted, but don't be surprised when in a year's time, and the Martians are gone, that the suppliers of washing machines have been wiped out.

OK, we have the vagaries of the weather to deal with, war and all that. I accept that the picture is complex, but I deny that it is complicated. You have only to ask which countries are complete basket cases, and which received most foreign aid to see a correlation.

Make sure you understand causation first. For example, it does not rain so that plants can grow; plants grow because it rains. I suggest we start thinking about aid the same way. Do we provide aid because countries are poor? Or are countries poor because we provide aid?

After I wrote this I came across an item where the international aid group, Care, is getting concerned about the same thing,

Friday, 23 May 2008

Some pictures I took

A non-grumpy post! I've enjoyed photography since I was about 12 and managed to get my hands on a Pentax when I was 16. Lasted me until I was 40! It's all digital now, of course. I use a Canon EOS 350D. These are some of my pictures, taken around the Dordogne where I live (if you click them you get an enlarged view, I think)

A spring flower of some description, Dear God, my ignorance!

I'm not sure what this is, some kind of thistle I guess

Min, when she was younger

This leads down to a water source under our house

And this is the water source - the steps date to 12th c, but the source is likely to be prehistoric

Sunset over our place

The dogs are good with our chickens. Wonder how that works?

Visitor no. 1

Recent visitor no. 2. Looks like a weasel I think. One of the cats "treed" him

One of our mares having a roll

Cupidon stopping Min in her tracks using the little known foot-in-the-face trick

But her revenge was terrible

Another lovely something

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Pressing the flesh, French style

In a nutshell: This is in praise of the French, who have an endearing habit of touching each other, unlike the tight-arsed Brits.

Given that we are monkeys (or Naked Apes to use Desmond Morris's term) don't you find it odd that we don't touch or groom each other more often?

And when we do, it is usually in a carefully constrained context: hairdresser, the handshake, a touch on the shoulder or elbow, massage - no, not that kind, and so on.

During my student days I came across a very interesting social psychology experiment. The experimenter would leave a coin in a call box and wait until someone came to place a call. Of course they all did what you or I would do; they pocketed it. When they had finished their call, he would approach them and say "I think I may have left a coin there - you didn't see it, did you?". As the question was asked he would either touch them lightly on the elbow, or not. That's all.

So what happened? Turns out that most of those he touched produced the coin willingly; most of those not touched said, in effect, "Sorry, but no". That simple light touch on the elbow turned the interaction into something special where the person did not want to deceive. And get this: when they were told that they had been part of an experiment and asked about their experience of it, none of them could recall being touched!

Cue the delightful French, who unlike the English, still understand the importance of contact. I claim no authority for all French, and all of France, but here in the Dordogne we do press the flesh as follows:
  • I shake hands with my male friends every single day
  • This courtesy extends to, for example, artisans. If I have someone working on the house we will shake hands every single morning when he arrives
  • I shake hands with strangers who turn up
  • I shake hands with women that I do not know well
  • I kiss women that I do know well. In the Dordogne it is once on each cheek. None of your "air kissing". This is proper close friendly contact. (The Parisian woman who lives near here kisses four times - e.g. left, right, left, right; a Belgian does it three. So you do need to know who you are dealing with!)
  • All children (the term enfant seems to cover birth up to about 14), boys or girls, will expect to kiss you if they know you, and manners dictate that they will kiss a stranger during introductions
  • One may, or may not, kiss on parting. It is a matter of context and somehow you learn it
  • I kiss men at moments of great passion (e.g. we win the rugby) or New Year's eve
  • You do not kiss women when first introduced. However, this can be relaxed in certain contexts, such as a group setting where all the others are on kissing terms
  • You progress to kissing by some invisible criterion that I generally get right
  • And very important, at least in this locale, having greeted someone and shaken hands or kissed as case may be, you do not repeat same later in the day. If you try they will remind you that "je t'ai déjà vu".

There are times when the contrast could not be more marked. In my English Pub I would be lucky to get a greeting at all from the landlord, or perhaps "Evening, what will it be?".

At Chez Edith I will be kissed by Barbara the landlady, kissed by each of her two daughters, kissed by Marie behind the bar, kissed by Isabel in the kitchen when she passes through, will shake hands with Stefan the landlord; and that's before further greetings with other clients. And Barbara will definitely kiss you goodbye on your way out.

The effect? Well naturally I can't prove anything, but I do find the French very warm and friendly, great chatterboxes, and always willing to find the time to cement social relationships.

They still have something the English have lost, and the willingness to reach out to each other, physically, is part of it. Long may it last.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Milton Frieman on the free market and pencils

I wrote about pencils, and whether they were sexy or not, here. A little while ago I stumbled across this short video by Milton Friedman, discussing the same theme. It runs for 2 mins 10 sec. I think he tells the story rather well.

Friedman is perhaps best known for his book "Free to Choose" - and also for acting as a part-time advisor to Maggie Thatcher - for which he is famous or infamous depending on your point of view. He had an interesting life.

His parents were Jewish immigrants in America and worked in a sweat shop. Despite this he writes in defense of sweat shops, showing how, for those who have nothing (perhaps not even the right language), they present you with the first rung of a ladder that you can climb. And present an alternative to exclusion; the fate of many people who are, instead, on benefits.

Monday, 12 May 2008

The trouble with women

I pass on the following bit of pre-Cosmopolitan trivia. It was volunteered by a sexologist of the early 60s, haven't a clue who, so I regret it must go unattributed. Though could have been Oswald Schwartz now that I think about it. Anyway, who cares? Here is a paraphrase which may cast some light on sexual politics.

"The trouble with women is that they have an inexhaustible capacity for enjoying sex but practically no need to actually have it".

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Why I am not a happy tax-paying bunny

You've probably come across the three certainties:

(1) death
(2) taxes and
(3) you will one day have to speak in public

Let's forget about death and public speaking. Let's talk tax. (No, don't head for the exit; like the pencils this will be more interesting than you think).

Tax, for me, is one of those things that I have changed my mind about. I used to feel quite good about tax. I mean, the concept seems both simple and fair; you take something off people who have more than enough and you give it to people who don't have enough. Plus you do good works with what is left; build schools, hospitals, roads, old folks homes and that kind of thing.

Put like that, it's a no-brainer.

Now I'm not so sure for these reasons:

  • The amount we are taxed has grown steadily
  • So the resource the government has is now enormous
  • It spends it unwisely
  • It's big enough to distort the direction of society and the economy
  • Last, we are all, rich or poor, less prosperous than we would be or should be
So what's the problem?

Robbery was robbery even in Robbin Hood's day. The fact that your taxes may be given to the poor (or fund the war in Iraq) doesn't change the logic. Try withholding tax and you will find that strong men, armed if necessary, will take your money off you. OK, maybe that, though true, is going too far. Maybe tax is a social obligation; the state does need some revenue. I'll look at that later.

But let's move on. There's a bigger problem. Each pound, yen or dollar can only be spent once. That means that either you spend it, or the government spends it on your behalf.

Surely the only justification for taking it off you is that the government is going to spend it more wisely than you would? And pigs might fly. Did you know, for example, that in the USA 40% of tax dollars go to military spending and 4% of tax dollars go to schooling? Do you think that if tax payers were spending that money themselves they would apportion it thus? I personally wouldn't.

But if spending money unwisely is a problem, then that problem is compounded when the sum of money is astronomical. In the UK tax revenues are about £400 billion - maybe much more. Is that a lot of money? Difficult to grasp big numbers. If it were in £10 notes, it would weigh 20,000 tons. As a stack of notes it would reach 5,000 kilometers into space. So, yes, quite a lot of money, originally belonging to you and me.

You probably think of tax as income tax. But that's just the start:
  • You pay tax on your income (BTW did you know that this was a "temporary" tax, introduced in 1799 to pay for the Napoleonic wars? Read about it here )
  • Your employer paid National Insurance for the privilege of employing you - but since this will be passed on in the form of more costly goods and services you might as well have been taxed directly
  • Your company paid corporation tax on any profits. Once again you will pay for it in the form of more costly goods and services
  • You will pay council tax
  • Anything you spend will be taxed a further 17.5% VAT in the UK, more in France
  • If you save or invest, you will pay tax on any interest or capital gains
  • Anything left? Fancy improving your house? You will be taxed for your efforts
  • Then road tax, 75% of the cost or petrol at the pump, various stealth taxes ...
  • Your pension will be taxed
  • Finally death, followed by inheritance tax for the scroungers who survive you
I reckon that in the end you may get to keep no more than £3 in every £10 that you earned. That's an awful lot of prosperity to divert from private to public use.

But the government needs some money, surely?

Of course. The fundamental job of government is to make laws and see that they are enforced. Otherwise it would be plain old "might is right". So we need a police force and armed forces large enough to be credible, but which should not be used outside of its borders (I suggest). And really, that's about it. Some taxes must be raised to pay for that. But only a fraction of what is raised and spent today.

So where did it start to unravel?

There was a big spurt in the immediate aftermath of WWII. This is when government went beyond law making and keeping into actually doing things.

For example, you can pass a law making education compulsory. You do not have to run the schools. You can pass a law requiring citizens to have compulsory health insurance (like 3rd party car insurance). You do not have to run the hospitals. You can require that citizens put money aside to cover periods of unemployment. You do not have to run a Department of Work and Pensions.

Look at it this way. The government has views about us eating fruit and veg; imagine now that they find it necessary to run the greengrocers. Stupid, right? Well so is the rest.

The other post-war thing has been a push to state sponsored altruism. This is very blunt, very inefficient and very remote.

It's easy to be on the side of the angels. I think that most of us are instinctively altruistic and like to help. I want people to be healthy, have enough to live on, be well educated, be free from fear of physical or emotional abuse and so on. Yet after more than half a century of relatively left-wing politics (by both Labour and Conservative parties) we still have a nation whose health is suspect, whose schools are a disgrace, where poverty in sink estates remains uneradicated, and where authorities fail to recognise that children are at risk in high profile case after high profile case.

Big tends to be bad

Government policy is dreamt up by a bunch of liberal arts graduates (yeh, yeh, I know), unrestrained by market forces or other reality testing, is prone to the Law of Unintended Consequences, backed up by stunning amounts of money, and can't go broke. Wow. If that lot's not a recipe for disaster I don't know what is.

A couple of examples.

The first has to do with government diverting transport from canal and rail to roads - not because of market forces, but because of centrally conceived policies. With all the fuss about privatising / nationalising rail, it is easy to forget that Britain's very comprehensive early rail network was the result of private enterprise.

Here's a lake I fish in in Scotland. In the background is a lovely granite railway bridge. Of course the rail is gone, but this was the Castle Douglas to Gatehouse line. Both of those are tiny places by the way, but you could travel from one to the other by train. A Great Uncle of mine would hitch a ride and be dropped off at this very lake, in the middle of a wilderness, by the train driver; and picked up again at the end of the day.

Rail was nationalised after the war and went downhill from there. Dr Beeching, in the 1960s, recommended the closing of 2,000 stations (!) with the loss of 70,000 jobs, and it was the post 1964 Labour Government that actually made most of the closures.

Naturally, what rail could no longer do, the highway lobby was happy to pick up.

The second has to do with the most recent episode of Foot and Mouth.

Foot and Mouth is a relatively mild disease in most farm animals. They have flu-like symptoms and recover in a couple of weeks. Kenneth Clarke is the only politician I have ever heard be brave enough to say it should have been left to run its course. And if it had been up to the farmers, it's hard to see how they could have done anything else.

But wait! In steps the government to "save" the meat export industry, worth £300 million. Not quite. The net worth is about zero, since we also import that amount. And it "saved" it using £8 billion of our money, caused the farming community a great deal of distress, and also caused a great deal of animal suffering. That's right - it spent nearly 30 times (!!) as much of our money than the value of the industry it was saving.

And the last one: the government's decision to "save" Northern Rock could cost, it is estimated, every tax payer in the land £3,500. Err, thanks guys.

Is this a left / right issue?

Yes and no. "No" in that right-of-centre governments have got just as big as left-of-centre governments. "Yes" in that left wing governments do have explicit social agendas and right wing governments don't. Here are some definitions that highlight the differences:

The left:

  • is in favour of intentional political, economic and social change.
  • prioritises social equality.
  • therefore believes it is necessary and right to "tax and spend"

The right:

  • does not pursue intentional change
  • prioritises individual responsibility and the maintenance of natural and inherent inequalities between people
  • therefore should in principle have less need to "tax and spend"

However this simple formulation seems to have gone wrong somewhere, because in Britain we have big government whether it is left or right.

What would be better?

Philosophically I am inclined to leave money in the hands of those who earn it on the grounds that they know better than the government how to spend it, not the other way around. However some state revenues are necessary as they always have been.

I quite like the idea of VAT since it taxes consumption and is hard to evade. And no other taxes at all. If that was pegged at between 5% and 10% it would generate 50 billion to 100 billion which sounds like plenty - if the state sticks to what it should be doing and stopped running everyones' lives. And still leave enough for a genuine safety net.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Why pencils are sexy

Are pencils sexy? Or is the title of this post a blatant attempt to exploit sex to get readers?

Well actually, I think that pencils are just a teensy bit sexy because (a) they are without doubt phallic, to a Freudian, and (b) they can tell us a great deal about why free markets work - no, don't go away, this is much more interesting than sex.

OK, so here's a simple question. When did you last have difficulty buying a pencil? You can't remember, can you? What's more, you almost certainly were able to buy the the style, colour and hardness that you wanted. And at a price that didn't make your eyes water.

The pencil example was used during a course I took in economics, before I decided on psychology (and you thought I was making that phallic bit up, shame on you). The example was to illustrate the power of free markets in providing the things that we want at a price we can afford.

Consider. The pencil consists of wood, paint, a ferrule (that's the metal bit), an eraser (not a rubber which, I understand, means something quite different in the States) and the core which is a mixture of graphite and clay. A pencil manufacturer needs to be able to bring together those resources.

But there is an almost infinite chain of knock-on effects. The wood comes from trees which need to be planted. At maturity they need to be felled. To do that you need axes or more likely chain-saws. So there is a pull-through to metal smelters and engineering works to provide those things. But ore needed to be mined first, and machine tools designed and built. Ore bodies need to be prospected and then developed. And in each of these industries we need the right number of people with the right kinds of skills.

I could make exactly the same point about the paint that covers the pencil, or the ferrule, or the eraser, or the graphite core, the system of distribution and so on.

How on earth do all these things come together, in the right quantities, to allow the right number of pencils to be made? You may well ask. In fact I hope you did. As I trailed earlier, it's down to free markets and the pricing mechanism. Every time one of the elements gets out of kilter the price mechanism will correct it. Too much wood? Price goes down because the pencil makers don't need it. Resources move out of wood into something else. Can't get the metal to make ferrules for love or money? Well I don't know if love will talk, but money will. When entrepreneurs see the price of metal being bid up, and supernormal profits being made, they will get into metal, the supply will increase, and the price will move back into the normal range.

Blahdy blahdy blah. What stops this being dull? I'll tell you, using two real examples.

Number one. I used to be an academic at University College London. We had a Russian visit our department. This was in the pre-Glasnost era, late 70s. I was showing him around and he wanted my contact details. He took out his wallet and withdrew from it a carefully folded piece of paper. It already had stuff written on it, right to the edges. He found a blank space, the size of a postage stamp, and wrote my details there. Paper, it turned out, was something he did not have a lot of. Well it was either going to be that, or a glut, spin a coin. At that time the Soviets used to plan, five years at a time, what they would need. Paper would be part of that plan, but from the above you know that means factories, wood, plantations, felling facilities, distribution etc etc ALL of which have to be planned correctly - and since prices would all be fixed, no price mechanism to tell you when you got it wrong. Which means you would get it wrong.

Number two. I had a rant about why Britain's National Health Service, far from being a jewel in its crown, was in fact an expensive mistake. If you followed the above you will understand why something as simple as a lead pencil can't be delivered by a central committee. In the UK they are smart enough to know that. They let pencils arrive courtesy of the free market. But what they do try and deliver by a central committee is a £100 billion health system. Hmmmm.

This is not good news, because we live in an age where governments everywhere are getting very fond of doing everything. Dear oh dear.


Adam Smith explained all this much better than I can, and he did it over 200 years ago. He really was a genius, but denigrated by the modern left. His present-day supporters are often branded as neo-conservative loonies. Ah well, pass the Valium.