Salary Transparency

So the BBC has just published salaries of its presenters at the behest of the UK government. Was this sensible or political manoeuvring against the Beeb?

It is clearly political, in that only the salaries of direct employees are being reported. Those who choose to hide their financial affairs behind suitable ‘distribution companies’ avoid such scrutiny and pay less tax into the bargain. The logical response of valuable BBC employees is to turn themselves into companies, and thus regain their privacy and pay less tax. Joan Bakewell is right, the government is simply up to some mischief at the expense of the BBC.

I remember the culture of industry during my ‘working’ years. Salary was something negotiated with your boss on joining, and subsequently once a year. There was no simple way of knowing if you were paid in any way commensurate with your peers – you relied on the boss to do that. Of course, those who shouted loudest tended to get the best deal.

Far more sensible would be a company environment where all salaries and remunerations are transparently visible to all – clearly fair, but a culture change a long way from where things are (still) at. There is a peculiar attachment to secrecy in money matters – of course encouraged by the main beneficiaries. So there is a germ of sense in the government’s position, even though its motivation may have been entirely malicious.

A Hen Harrier’s Tale

Beautiful tale of a persecuted hen harrier.

Eyes in the back of my Head

wow2_filtered

Hera flew for her life, the wind buffeting her wings as they carried her through the  upland air. Terrified, confused, sad, angry, she was a mess of jumbled emotions as she fled the scene.

Returning to her chicks in the nest she’d made for them, she discovered they were all dead. They had been squashed and trampled beneath the boots of a gamekeeper. She’d screamed in anguish, looking at the bloodied bodies of her tiny brood, then had taken to the sky to get away, fast.

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Easy abstractions 

This week’s Guardian ‘long read’ on Globalisation: the rise and fall of an idea that swept the world by Nikil Saval is well worth a read, outlining the failures of economic/political policy that have led to today’s dysfunctional world economy and its increasing inequalities.

How easy it is to propound abstractions and not consider the real world implications – free trade, free markets, globalisation – the apparent obsession of many economists and politicians over the last 40 years.

Of course, chickens eventually come home to roost. And this is what we see in the real world, with people in the West disillusioned with the effects of a failing globalisation system, just as in the early 20th century.

Deluded by these abstractions have politicians failed to act according to the interests of those they represent? It is after all their job to so act.

But of course we all have our own favourite abstractions, and our own view of what might have been better decisions…

Tuition fees

Is there a public interest in a certain percentage of the population being educated to degree level, and another percentage being inducted into various apprenticeships? Clearly yes.

So why is there resistance to this being funded at an appropriate level out of general taxation? Maybe because of the suspect belief that it is the individual who is the primary beneficiary – clearly not true in the case of people like nurses. And maybe because we have been educating too many people to a degree level that creates over-supply of various skills.

The other reason is that government resources are increasingly under pressure since 2007, as the system itself founders, compounded by efforts to reduce the size of the State itself.

But tuition fees are now totaly discredited because of their severe implementation, leaving young people with an excess of £50000 of debts when embarking on life. In addition to the known problems of housing costs, poorer pensions and reduced opportunities for highly paid work. Crazy, an inter-generational injustice.

This should never have been cast as a debt – a ‘graduate tax’ or progressive taxation would have been a different matter. Strange that this one betrayal of their own voters is probably the reason for the low Liberal Democrat polling in the last two UK general elections. And Labour’s resurgence in tbe recent election is probably significantly down to their promise to abandon tuition fees.

 

 

The sixth extinction

sixth extinction coverI read Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction some time ago, and have struggled to assimilate the immensity of what it says. Essentially, mankind is the agent that is in the process of causing the sixth great extinction event for the variety of species on earth.

This has been going on for hundreds of years, most notably associated with the European expansion across the world from the 1500s, and accelerating with recent population explosion and globalisation. Should we be concerned?

You won’t find the answer in this book, but will find this disturbing subject covered in an engaging way. The author tells the story of a number of symptomatic species – mastodon, great auk,  golden frog, North American bats, etc. – and explores some particularly susceptible environments, notably the Amazon rainforest, the slopes of the Andes and the Great Barrier Reef.

The conclusions are stark. This mass extinction is happening. How severe it is depends on how we humans, now the planetary stewards, choose to act or not. Elizabeth Kolbert presents a balanced view, but in the end it depends what we all care about, and do.

Well worth reading.

Garden wildlife

I mowed the lawn this evening, and scared the daylights out of two frogs. Both emerged from dense vegetation, presumably feeling threatened by the noise of the grass cutter, and hopped off towards the sanctuary of the pond.

As I put some of the grass cuttings into the compost heap, I could feel the heat and see the mass of living things – slugs, flies, beetles, worms… It’s certainly true, as covered in Chris Packham’s excellent program on BBC4 last night ‘Life and Death on your Lawn’, that the domestic back garden can provide the environment for a plethora of wildlife. The large number of birds is testament to this, as well as to the welcome propensity of people to put up feeders. Indeed, it seems suburbia is becoming a haven for wildlife compared to the aridity of much industrial scale farming.

Which of course is why the trend to put more concrete and artificial grass in back gardens, as well as front, is quite deplorable. How disconnected from the real world can you get?

My early experience of gardening largely entailed keeping things tidy. Now I realise that the very process of ‘tidying’ can be quite damaging to the local wildlife. Newts, frogs, beetles, woodlice, millipedes scamper for alternative cover when a supposedly untidy lawn edge is tidied up. So shaggy is the new ‘in’ for our garden.

Even so, we struggle to repeat the mass frog spawning seen here in the early 2000s (pic), much as the above programme showed in Welwyn. Frogs are under so much threat these days, and tidiness is far from the greatest of these.

British Lawnmower Museum

Following my recent post on matches, which was inspired by the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport, I was interested to note that the first lawnmower was actually invented by Edward Budding in Stroud in 1830, just after the perfection of a reproducible striking match in 1825/6. What an inventive time were those days of Great Britain’s industrial revolution.

The Southport museum contains an example of Budding’s invention, and a fine piece of engineering it was, operated by two people, one pushing and one pulling. But extremely heavy because of its cast iron manufacture.

It was interesting to discover from Brian Radam, who established the museum, that this is a true lawnmower. Later modern rotary ‘mowers’ are in fact ‘grass cutters’ that work by shearing and tearing, rather than by cutting.

Altogether, a visit to the lawnmower museum proves rather more interesting than you might think, with a number of rooms full of old machines and stories that Brian, a great enthusiast, will regale you with. And you get to see an old machine once owned by Nicholas Parsons of ‘Just a Minute’ fame!

How did you do that?

“How did you do that?”

Brian Radam at the British Lawnmower Museum in Southport was demonstrating to a 16-year-old work-experience volunteer how to light an old gas stove.

“How did I do what?” countered Brian.

“Make that flame when you ran that little stick across that box.”

That 16-year-old had never seen or experienced a match. My flabber has never been so truly gasted!

Makes you realise that things that one generation takes for granted as commonplace are not necessarily carried forward to succeeding generations.

It seems that a replicable and usable friction match was invented in 1826, and a safety match in 1855. They were so common during my childhood in 1950s Lincoln that the roadside gutters usually contained numerous matchsticks; I was even led to try making matchstick models, but soon gave up as it was all too messy and tedious – all that sticky glue!

After nearly 200 years, matches appear to be in the ‘long tail’ of their lifecycle. It seem unlikely that they’ll ever disappear altogether, but you never know…

Picture by thebarrowboy viw Wikimedia Commons

Energy and economy

In her post The Next Financial Crisis is not Far Away Gail Tverberg presents an interesting assessment of where the world economy has been, is and is going. It seems to explain a lot of what we see going on.

Gail makes a number of observations, based on extensive research, that appear to look deeper than most so-called economists.

  • our economy is a self-organised system that seems to grow by itself
  • economies can collapse if circumstances are not right cf USSR
  • oil exporting nations can have problems if prices are too low cf Venezuela, whereas oil importing nations can have problems if prices are too high cf Greece
  • energy consumption correlates with and enables economic growth (see Gail’s chart), so cheap energy means high growth cf recent China, India, but not now

world-gpd-growth-has-followed-changes-in-energy-consumption

  • world growth in energy consumption is now negative
  • these factors explain lack of strong Western growth since 2007/8, and corresponding structural problems such as many low-paying jobs resulting in reducing tax take, which generates pressure on public services and so on
  • Likely symptoms of collapse: political parties cannot agree, debt repayment problems, falling international trade, breakdown of higher layers of organisation cf USSR

The point Gail does not really bring out is that economic growth also tends to correlate with negative environmental impacts, so low growth is actually much better for the environment.

We seem to be in a bind: economic growth and social stability versus environment. It is likely that we will always default to the former until the effects of the latter are so disastrous that action is forced upon us.

In a sensible world, we’d be having a big conference to try to work out a better way of managing human affairs that works with the environment, and perhaps decouples perceived benefits from both energy and growth. Which brings us back to the money/debt system, who controls it and who benefits…

In the real world we will just muddle on. And whether Brexit represents a national suicidal impulse or a prescient reading of the runes will not become clear for some time yet! (Its short term negative impact is becoming increasingly clear.)

 

So there is a Magic Money Tree

The status quo is not working, and there is increasingly insufficient money to fund adequate public services in many countries. Let’s try a simple thought experiment.

Suppose that the Central Bank takes back control of the creation of money. Instead of most new money being created by banks as debt, it is just created centrally by the sovereign power – and then loaned at a very low rate to accredited banks to lend on to customers. Let’s call this very low rate delta. Alternatively, delta is taken as a levy on bank lending/debt creation activities – the effect is the same.

Now, if delta is small enough, I would suggest that there will be little or no effect on either bank lending or confidence in the currency. But the sum of a lot of all these small deltas can be quite large. All this money could be passed on to government and would be available either to finance public services or to provide the beginnings of a basic income – and maybe bankers would be not be quite so rich.

Of course, there would need to be adequate safeguards around delta to prevent unscrupulous use by politicians. In the UK, we know how to do such things, eg monetary policy committee.

So there is a magic money tree, after all. Of course, there are others, eg Tobin Tax on financial transactions, as mentioned in an earlier post Magic Money Trees.

The Living Truth

That which is false troubles the heart, but truth brings joyous tranquillity.

Rumi

Is there a universal truth?

I would suggest that truth relates to a frame of reference. It is undoubtedly true that 1+1=2 in the frame of mathematics.

But is it true, for example, that capitalism is the best way to organise human resources, or that democracy is the best way of choosing a leader, or that everything has a materialistic explanation, or similar articles of modern Western orthodoxy? Well it all depends… on the particular circumstances in question.

It seems more appropriate to suggest that truth is relative to its context. Our aim is to live by the best and highest truth in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. We might term this the Living Truth.Read More »

Great Auk

great aukThe story of the Great Auk is well told by The Smithsonian.

Essentially this was a very large bird that lived in great profusion in three islands of the north Atlantic, one near Newfoundland, and two near Iceland. A bit like a penguin or a huge puffin.

When explorers got to these places they were ‘easy meat’ – easily caught and providing a good food source for hungry sailors.

Not only that, their feathers became prized as an alternative to those of the Eider duck. People used to go to stay on the islands just to pluck their feathers, after which the birds died.

By 1775 the possibility of extinction was apparent and the British parliament legislated to ban killing of Great Auks, but there were loopholes.

The American population died out first, then an eruption destroyed the larger of the Icelandic islands. The birds became very scarce, an unsavoury collector’s dream. The last two birds were killed on the smaller island, Eldey, by trophy hunters in 1844, who trod on their egg.

A salutary lesson when we consider how to protect today’s endangered species in a far less amenable environment where there are far more human beings and climate change is occurring at the same time. They can only be saved if we get very serious about it.

Inspired by Elizabeth Kolbert’s book The Sixth Extinction, which contains a fuller description of the history.

Image is the only known illustration of a Great Auk drawn from life. By Ole Worm – Olaus Wormius [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mr Stanniforth

Although most of the main adult influences on my life growing up in 1950s Lincoln came from family members, this was by no means all. Mr Stanniforth lived near us and was a Sunday School teacher at the local Methodist chapel. At a very young age my brother and I had laid foundation stones for the new Swallowbeck chapel, overseen by my grandma, a staunch Methodist. So we were duly sent to the service on Sunday morning and Sunday School in the afternoon.

To be honest, the services were a bit boring, apart from once a year when an evangelical circuit preacher gave us stirring sermons and a good singsong. At Sunday School, I guess I learned quite a lot about the bible and bible stories, useful background in later life. And I loved playing table tennis at the youth club when I was a bit older.

Mr Stanniforth was a jolly, balding, portly middle-aged man, always reminding us about next Sunday whenever he saw us. My biggest memory is of him repeatedly telling us that ‘alcohol is evil’. Even my young mind thought, can alcohol be evil, when many of the adults I know go to the pub from time to time? Maybe this set in train doubt about religious organisations from an early age, probably the opposite of what was intended.

 

Loganberries and politics

Our loganberry bush never ceases to amaze me at this time of year. Over the last month or so new shoots have thrust forth, now towering over my head, over 8 feet tall. At the same time, last year’s stems are prolifically fruiting, yet at simultaneously dying, increasingly showing brown and wilting leaves.

It’s all just in time, as the new growth soon begins to overwhelm the old and deprive it of light. This is life – the old life fruits and matures, giving way to the thrusting energies of new life.Read More »

Collective Narcissism 

I like Eric C’s post on Signs of Collective Narcissism, which seems to capture a useful concept that neatly describes some of today’s more alarming phenomena – nationalism, religious extremism, political extremism, populism, racism, sexism…

Of course this is the collective equivalent of narcissism of the invidual ego – the narcissism of a group. The job of all groups is to transcend this group ego and place it in support/ service of the whole, rather than serving itself at the expense of the whole.

Political parties, religions, followers of strong leaders, in particular please note.

 

 

People of the Lie

“…the uncanny game of hide and seek in the obscurity of the soul, in which it, the single human soul, evades itself, avoids itself, hides from itself.”

Martin Buber

Recent events brought to mind psychotherapist M.Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie: The hope for healing human evil, published 1983, which I read many years ago now.

Peck’s book is actually about the psychology of evil, or rather seeking towards such a thing.

He gives a useful definition of evil:

  • Evil is that which kills or suppresses life or the life force.
  • Goodness is its opposite – that which promotes life and liveliness.

There is an element of such evil in all of us, but what matters is how we respond and evolve. If we invoke the mask of self righteousness, a self-image of perfection, and are not open to the evil that might be within then we deceive ourselves – the biggest lie.Read More »

Magic Money Trees

“There’s no magic money tree”

Tory general election campaign slogan.

Well there are lots of them, actually.

How about the ability of banks to create money out of thin air and charge interest on it, gaining profits in the process? Why do you think banks have the biggest buildings in towns and cities and reliably generate huge salaries, bonuses and profits? Central banks could take over all money creation, to the benefit of all. See discussion at Positive Money.Read More »

The Plastic Grass Gardening Society

Echoes my own thoughts:

Eyes in the back of my Head

P1010824This is real grass…

Neighbours whose garden backs on to ours are having some hefty work done. Workmen arrived a couple of days ago, dismantling the decking, bashing all hell out of the concrete underneath, roughly rotovating the lawn (most of the garden is lawn) and clearing everything. Today – horror of horrors – a large white sheet covering the rotovated area has been put in place and we know what that probably means.

Plastic grass.

Someone we know recently killed off all signs of wildlife in their garden by laying plastic grass and installing a stone patio. A tree had to come down to allow this to happen, but there was a promise of pots and tubs to bring a bit of life to the area.

I dislike plastic grass intensely and nurture a secret desire to discover, in a guerilla kind of way, if it melts or burns….

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There’s a Way, May

Prime Minister Theresa May appears to have misunderstood the result of the recent UK general election. She asked for a mandate on Brexit. The mandate she got with a hung parliament was to work with the other parties to achieve a Brexit acceptable to the majority.

The intended agreement with the DUP is a dangerous and irrelevant sideshow. Who wants to revive any signs of the Irish Troubles we lived through for so many years? So the UK government must be seen to be scrupulously non-partisan.

It’s irrelevant because her own party will never agree on the way forward, so she needs agreement from parts of other parties, particularly Labour, to reach an acceptable Brexit deal.

Personally I’d like to see a government of national unity in this national emergency. But failing that, how about the Brexit negotiating group being led jointly by David Davis and Kier Starmer, with members from both parties?

There’s a Way, May.