Catastrophe

February 26, 2011

It’s been a terrible week for my beloved New Zealand, with Christchurch, one of our biggest cities, being virtually destroyed by an earthquake.  At present there are 145 confirmed deaths, at least 200 people still missing, and destruction everywhere.  It’s heart-breaking stuff.  This is likely to be the worst disaster ever to befall the country.  I am very thankful to report that my family and friends are all in the north island and are not directly affected.  It also sounds as though my friends with Christchurch connections have been fortunate enough to not lose anybody (although some of their families have lost their houses).

I know that people in New Zealand are being subjected to saturation coverage regarding the earthquake, but in the UK this story has already fallen off the front page of the newspapers.  This is, of course, completely understandable – this certainly isn’t the worst natural disaster to strike the earth this year, or probably even this month, and the situation in Libya is rightly dominating the press – but it’s so hard to be away from home at a time like this and realise that the things that are more important to you than almost everything else are just passing news items for most of the world.  Thank God for the internet and easy access to updates from back home.  It’s not that I don’t care about other things that are going on in the world, but there’s really only one story that I care about at the moment.

Having said that, it has been amazing to see the strength of good feeling for New Zealand from nearly all places in the world, with practical help and support being provided and endless sympathy extended.  It seems that, in the UK at least, the commonwealth still means something and there are few people that have forgotten the ties that have always bound our two countries together, demonstrated by the give and take of help as each country needs it.  And I am always so proud of my country in times of adversity.  I know, without doubt, that people in New Zealand will continue to bind together and support those who need it, ensuring that Christchurch can rise again from the rubble.  But it’s so hard to think of the suffering and grief being experienced by my fellow Kiwis.  Emily Perkins, one of my favourite NZ authors, expresses it really well here.  Like her, I’m thinking about this disaster and its victims every day.  I’m having nightmares about being stuck in earthquakes (very unusual for me).  It’s just so shocking to picture my country brought low in this way.

This site is a good source of information for people who might like to make a donation towards the relief fund.


Bankers’ bonuses

January 19, 2011

This commentary piece in The Independent was one of the best articles I’ve read for ages.  It discusses the totally ridiculous general attitudes towards bankers’ remuneration – here’s a sample:

Maybe Boris Johnson, too, is right when he says the banker bashing season should be declared closed.

Right, that is, in the sense that all the emotive stuff about “obscene” bonuses, “fairness” and rich men entering the kingdom of Heaven misses the point a bit. Is this debate really about creating an efficient, safe banking system (but one which has the same right as any other bit of the economy to pay people very well indeed)?

Or is it about what kind of society we want: the old, but perfectly respectable argument about what is an “acceptable” distribution of wealth, income and opportunity in a country.

Is paying Eric Daniels, boss of Lloyds, a £2m bonus bad because it is bad for the strength of his bank, or because it’s rather a lot of money for one chap?

Would it be “acceptable” if it was £1m? If so, why? Do we wish to be more like Sweden; more equal? Or more like the US or Brazil, with more billionaires and more shanty towns?

If we want to argue these points, then we ought to be more honest about it.If it is more about the way we supervise banks, then we should de-emotionalise and sub-contract it to the Bank of England and the other central banks and regulators around the world who are even now bending their minds to the task. Maybe the money Mr Diamond, Mr Daniels and the rest are getting should be put to better use, building up the capital of their banks or lending it out to small businesses.

If so that is something we ought to entrust to the Bank of England to secure. But those banks would still need bosses and would still need to be paid the going rate, hefty as it is. There is clearly the possibility that, in a good, healthy bank in a good year, appropriate, going-rate rewards for bosses and traders will be many times what a nurse or head teacher gets and the Bank of England will be OK about that.

Are we happy with that or not?Or put it this way: is the £75m that Mr Diamond has made from his involvement in Barclays over the past few years offensive because it is such a lot of dosh and “unfair”, or because it has been detrimental to financial stability? Would it be all right if he had received it as an oil executive? Or as a hedge fund head; an investment house; in other words, one that has made no demands on taxpayers at all? Would it be satisfactory if the Barclays board paid less than the going rate to Mr Diamond and his colleagues and they lost a competitive advantage to other banks? The same goes for the taxpayer-owned banks. The state-owned BBC and Post Office pay execs the rates for the job, so why not state-owned banks?

I have no friends who are bankers and I have no feelings about them as a group of people (just like I have no feelings about accountants, nurses, whatever).  However, the public hysteria about bankers’ bonuses and salaries, entirely fuelled by ridiculous media coverage, really gets on my nerves.

There’s a perception that the British government ‘bailed out’ many of the banks during the economic crisis and that the money being paid to the bankers now is coming from the pockets of hard-working tax-payers.  People will still claim that the banks shouldn’t have been ‘bailed out’ and should have been left to fail, to ‘teach them a lesson’. 

I think that several points are missed:

  • If the British banks hadn’t been assisted during the economic crisis, the entire financial system of this country would have collapsed and we would have probably ended up queuing for several hours to buy a loaf of bread.  The UK government had no choice but to help some of the banks.
  • The UK government didn’t just give the banks money as a philanthropic gesture – it took shares in RBS and Lloyds.  We, as UK taxpayers, own a stake in those banks.
  • The money used to pay bankers’ bonuses is generated by profits made by the banks – it isn’t coming from a UK government pot and it wouldn’t otherwise be used to pay nurses and teachers.
  • If we want the value of our investment in banks to increase, we need them to make money.  They will do this if they can employ and retain the best talent.  They will not manage to do that if their pay and bonus arrangements are uncompetitive.

As the Indy article goes on to say, the weird thing is the way in which the general public is directing all of its ‘unfairness’ accusations solely at bankers.  There are plenty of people in UK society who are paid a vast amount of money – Premierships footballers, for example (Wayne Rooney makes £250,000 a week, but nobody’s complaining about how unfair this is).  I think the attitude towards bankers is  partially because they are perceived as being stupid and irresponsible, having bought bad debt and all that.  But are UK tax payers in any position to fling around these accusations?  Personal debt (excluding mortgages) is up around £40,000 a household in this country, and plenty of UK tax payers made the most of the good times by doing things like taking out 100% mortgages on properties that have now dipped in value – pretty irresponsible and stupid behaviour, in my opinion.

Back to the Indy article:

Bankers were merely going about their lawful business, if not doing God’s work, with no evil intent. Let’s draw an analogy with the pharmaceutical industry, which is also involved in developing new, but risky products. If we suddenly decided to stop making them do extensive clinical trials and they went ahead and put drugs on the market that turned out to do harm and which cost the NHS billions to treat, who should we really blame? They ought not to do it, but it is the authorities’ job to oversee what they do. In the go-go years everyone was happy watching the City make money and no-one mentioned the emperor’s clothes.

If anyone should have done that it was the nation’s financial journalists, so wise and so indignant now. They did not. Neither did the regulators. Should they also now have their pay docked for their failure? Does paying Bob Diamond huge amounts damage his bank? If it does, then let the regulators penalise Barclays – they are plenty of ways they can do that.

I agree.


Floods

January 13, 2011

The scenes from Brisbane are terrible – I can’t imagine dealing with something like that, and it is tragic that lives have been lost.  However, I have full confidence in the abilities of the Australian government and Australian society to support people who may have lost everything in the wake of this disaster.

But spare a thought for the flood victims in Brazil: more than 250 people have been killed, and I suspect that the infrastructure there will be slightly less efficient when it comes to dealing with the aftermath.

In the UK the TV news coverage has featured the Brisbane floods extensively and has not covered the situation in Brazil in any great detail.  I hope that this is because of the easy availability of footage from Australia, and not evidence of a Western news bias…


Disgraced MP

January 13, 2011

In 2009 a big scandal broke in the UK concerning MPs’ expenses and, in particular, their widespread tendency to spend taxpayers’ money with a degree of freedom usually reserved for lottery winners.  Some of the tales of excess were just ridiculous – one Tory MP claimed the cost of having his moat cleaned, David Cameron thought that we should pay for the removal of wisteria from his house (because that wisteria was clearly having a major impact on his abilities as Leader of the Opposition at the time), and all MPs were able to claim a huge amount of sundry expenses each day, without even submitting a receipt.

All this was bad enough, but the worst bit was the habit of many MPs to designate a certain property as their second home, claim expenses for it, and (usually) dodge any tax that they were due to pay if they later sold the house.  Some of the MPs had barely even visited the houses in which they were claiming to live for some of the time.  Other MPs would have their second house just a few minutes’ walk from their family house.  It was all completely insane.

Anyway, we’re finally seeing some of the more dishonest and crooked MPs being tried and convicted, which is fantastic.  Last week David Chaytor, a former Labour MP, was jailed for 18 months after deliberately continuing to claim expenses for a mortgage that had already been paid.  And earlier this week Eric Illsley, MP for Barnsley Central, pleaded guilty to three charges of false accounting, and will also end up in jail. 

I’m particularly pleased about Illsley and I wish that there was some way that he could be stung for the public costs of his case: he initially denied the charges and was due to stand trial, but he later changed his plea.  Way to waste even more of the taxpayer’s money, Eric! 

What’s really astonishing is the fact that, because he will be likely to sentenced to less than a year in jail, he didn’t automatically lose his job as an MP – despite being convicted of a crime of fraud and dishonesty.  However, pressure from other MPs has forced him to resign.  And I’m also pretty surprised that the good people of Barnsley Central re-elected him last year, despite the investigation being already underway.  Those people take ‘innocent until proven guilty’ more seriously than I would have done, that’s for sure.

The whole question of MPs’ expenses really winds me up, actually.  I don’t begrudge them the right to claim standard expenses incurred while doing their jobs, but the way that this is interpreted is totally mental and would never be accepted in the private sector.  Apparently, being an MP means that the taxpayer should pay for all of the food consumed by your household – as if eating is an expense unique to life as an MP.  And the habit of owning a second home in London, one of the world’s most expensive cities for real estate, is mad.  MPs who live in electorates within commuting distance of London should be forced to join their constituents and catch the train every day.  And for MPs who live further afield there should be serviced apartments, owned by the state and available to them while they’re in the city.  I would buy or build a decent apartment block in an inner city suburb, furnish it, and tell them to keep the wild parties to a minimum.

(Coincidentally, while typing this I have been watching BBC Breakfast and they’ve just had a short piece about the likely sentencing options for Eric Illsley and, in particular, whether he should be jailed, or whether it’s a waste of taxypayer money to jail people for short periods for non-violent crimes.  One woman has suggested that we get out the cat ‘o’ nine tails, or put him in the stocks.)


‘Feminists’ and eyebrows

December 13, 2010

According to the Telegraph, ‘feminists’ are refusing to tame their eyebrows during the month of December: a facial hair fundraising movement to rival Movember.  They’ve renamed the month ‘Decembrow’.

Decembrow, inspired by the huge popularity of the unibrow in Tajikistan, is the female counterpart to Movember – a moustache-growing charity event held during November to raise money and awareness for men’s health issues, including prostate cancer.

Unsurprisingly, there have already been disparaging comments from anti-feminist groups, such as the religious group Concerned Women for America, whose CEO thinks it is “curious that feminists would choose to embrace facial hair”, before quipping: “How is that different than any other month of the year?” Well, considering how often the words “hairy” and “feminist” appear in the same sentence, we may as well live up to the stereotypes for a good cause.

I have disparaging comments to make about this, for two reasons:

  1. I really hate ungroomed eyebrows.  Seriously; a person’s eyebrows are one of the first things I notice about their face.  Tristan things that it’s hilarious, the degree to which I notice eyebrows.  He has perfect eyebrows, by the way – so perfect that I have long suspected him of indulging in illicit male grooming sessions.
  2. I hate this kind of use of the word ‘feminist’ with the burning power of one hundred suns.  I am a feminist.  You are a feminist.  Anybody who believes that women are entitled to the same rights and considerations as men is a feminist.  This means that most men I know are also feminists.  I get hugely frustrated by women who reject the term ‘feminist’ because of the political connotations of the word.  We should sort this out and de-politicise it as a word.  I’m firmly with Sars when it comes to the whole ‘feminist’ issue.  If you really want to learn more about my views on this kind of thing, visit the old version of this blog and look under the ‘stuff I believe’ tag: you’ll find a few rants (and rants about all sorts of things, now I look at it – I’m quite ranty when the mood takes me).

Movember is fantastic.  I have a couple of friends who take part nearly every year and delight me with their facial hair exploits.  When I’m Queen of the world, Movember participation will be complusory for all men.  I think that it works so well because it’s fun: men like growing silly moustaches and the rest of us like looking at them.  However, Decembrow sounds far too unfocused to be of any great value.  It’s so humourless.  And it’s assuming that all women are constantly battling a unibrow.  I don’t have a unibrow.  I’m such a bad feminist!

I do, however, like the idea of Frocktober, where women commit to wearing a different frock every day during October and raise money to fight ovarian cancer.  That’s the kind of fundraising that I could get behind.


Poppy drama

December 10, 2010

All hell has broken loose in New Zealand, due to the decision by the RSA (the New Zealand version of the Royal British Legion) to take production of its poppies off-shore (for non British or Kiwi readers who may not know what I’m on about: replica poppies are sold every year, to raise money to support war veterans).

The reason for the strong negative reaction is the news that the local production was undertaken by a Christchurch-based organisation called Kilmarnock Enterprises, which made 1.3 million poppies every year and which provided training and work for people with intellectual disabilities – they made the poppies.

The whole issue is making me really cross, for two reasons.

Firstly: the RSA is totally within its rights to do this, and I think that it’s making a good decision.  The RSA, like every charity, should have only one objective: to do its best to support its beneficiaries.  By shifting the poppy production off-shore, it will reduce the production costs by NZ$150,000 each year; money which will it will use to offer a greater level of support to veterans.   By failing to acknowledge this, I think that the New Zealand public has demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of charities.

Of course, it is a terrible shame that the training and work opportunities of intellectually disabled adults will be affected by the RSA’s decision.  However, this isn’t the RSA’s problem.  The solution, as I see it, is for somebody to recognise the value of the work and subsidise Kilmarnock Enterprises, to enable it to reduce its cost to the RSA and retain the contract.  But the two issues are totally separate: the provision of training and work for intellectually disabled adults; and the provision of support and services for veterans.  The latter issue is the RSA’s responsibility; the former issue is not.

Secondly: I think that the public reaction and threats of boycotting future ANZAC Day poppy sales are hypocritical in the extreme.  As is common in most first world countries in recent times, the manufacturing sector has been severely affected by the decision to send production off-shore.  In New Zealand, the discount store The Warehouse is one of the most successful brands, and you can rest assured that virtually everything for sale there is produced abroad.  The same is true of a whole range of brands.  Glassons doesn’t sell its clothes so cheaply because of amazing management practices; it does so because it produces everything elsewhere, in countries where labour costs are lower.

Now, the New Zealand public is perfectly happy to stomach this kind of thing for the most part, when it means that they can buy what they want at a reasonable price.  People in New Zealand lose jobs because of it, but it doesn’t result in boycotts of The Warehouse, or Glassons.  The companies in question send their production off-shore solely to reduce production costs and increase profit margins, and everybody is fine about it.

The RSA is trying to reduce its production costs for a far more altruistic reason: to increase the amount of money available to support people in need.  This should be applauded, not criticised.  The New Zealand public should be celebrating the fact that a charity is looking to run itself as efficiently as possible.  Instead, they’re happily putting up with off-shore manufacturing in order to make money for company shareholders, but are not willing to put up with it when the outcome will be increased support for veterans.  And these are the same people who claim that, through its decision, the RSA is somehow ‘betraying’ New Zealand values.  Unbelievable. 

And like I said earlier, there’s nothing stopping anybody from setting up a charity to support the provision of work and training for the affected adults, thus enabling them to compete with the off-shore producers and retain the contract. Of all the incensed New Zealanders who claim that they will now boycott an amazing cause, I wonder how many will have the gumption and dedication to set up or financially support that charity?  Indeed, I wonder how much money they currently donate to support employability skills training for disabled people?  Or how stringently they insist on only buying New Zealand Made products in every other areas of their lives?


Wikileaks: the NZ connection

December 9, 2010

Hilariously, the New Zealand media has managed to find a local angle to the Wikileaks story – good work, given that NZ is a tiny, peaceful, law-abiding place and, as such, probably isn’t the topic of many secret conversations between various world leaders and diplomats.

Apparently, a couple of our beaches are crucial to Amercian interests:

New Zealand’s sole reference relates to the Southern Cross Cable, a fibre optic link between the US, Australia and New Zealand, via Fiji.

The cable comes ashore on Takapuna beach and is buried in a 15 kilometre link across the North Shore and via Whenuapai before diving back into the sea at the Manukau Harbour and heading out to Australia.

Clinton’s cable requires embassies around the world to build a list of “critical infrastructure and key resources” abroad that could be part of a National Infrastructure Protection Plan.

“The overarching goal of the NIPP is to build a safer, more secure, and more resilient America by enhancing protection of the nation’s CI/KR to prevent, deter, neutralize or mitigate the effects of deliberate efforts by terrorists to destroy, incapacitate or exploit them; and to strengthen national preparedness, timely response, and rapid recovery in the event of an attack, natural disaster or other emergency,” Clinton says.

Referring to sites outside the US, she said they want to “identify these critical US foreign dependencies – foreign CI/KR that may affect systems within the US directly or indirectly”.

Embassies are asked to report on the state of security around the facilities and they are told not – twice – to “consult with host governments”.

Perhaps, after his Rugby World Cup-themed honeymoon, Prince William could check out the relevant sites on NATO’s behalf?